In our odd little soccer universe here in the States, we have this, ahem, little situation—the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup versus MLS. They’re like North and South Korea, Everton and Liverpool, Paul Gardner’s columns and logic. They co-exist while presenting challenges to the other.
The challenges appear every year at this time when MLS teams debate the value of participating in the Open Cup. MLS executives act like it’s a burden; they say they will compete; they give us second stringers; and they move on with life.
But, this situation is not specific to MLS at all. It’s been a problem for many decades.
Highly paid historians think that soccer first appeared in our colonies 401 years ago. It’s not like Fisher-Price launched a soccer kit through Sears one day and Americans made it the top Christmas gift. Really we just have a good guess that when Henry Spelman wrote in Relation of Virginia about a game played with feet and making “Gooles” in 1609, he was talking about something similar to today’s football.
It’s plausible because Spelman was from England, and so was football. As more queen-loving Brits showed up during the next three centuries, they gave us more evidence of football in the form of cave drawings, shrouds and microfiche of bicycle kicks and collective bargaining agreements.
Then came the late 1800s. Loosely formed soccer teams would challenge other loosely formed teams to something similar to pick-up games. As the teams became more formal, a system like boxing developed. Teams would challenge other teams for a prize.
When more teams wanted in on the action, citywide leagues started with cups being given to the winners. Those winners would challenge winners of other city leagues with the champion earning bragging rights as the best in a whole state or region.
That led to leagues with wider geographic bases, such as the American Football Association, which formed in 1884. Its first championship was earned in 1885 by ONT, of Kearny, New Jersey. As winners, ONT took home the first American Cup trophy.
During the first years of the league, competition was not so much national as it was limited to communities along the Hudson River. Additional teams made the quest for the American Cup more legitimate as a national championship. After stalling in 1898 and restarting later, the competition for the American Cup went the way of basketball’s NIT as teams concentrated more on the National Challenge Cup.
The National Challenge Cup—now named the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup—was the tournament of The Man. Soon after being granted testicles by FIFA, the United States Soccer Federation told all professional teams that they should participate in the tournament whether they wanted to or not.
That went well at first but became a problem later on.
The first winners, The Brooklyn Field Club, took home the Dewar Trophy, a gift from Thomas Dewar, a British distiller, in 1914. Like them, other members of the North American Foot Ball League dominated the earliest years of the tournament. In fact, Bethlehem Steel, also part of the NAFBL, won four of the next five tournaments.
The problems developed when the American Soccer League, a more financially focused group of teams, felt like the tournament detracted from their effort to win league games.
The American Soccer League had started up in 1921, with operators steeped in the knowledge of failed leagues and folded teams. As a group of players, coaches, and investors, the ASL saw itself as the investing, risk-taking branch of the game in the U.S.
Therefore, they believed, their efforts should not be hampered by the national organization, the USSF.
What had the USSF invested into their league, anyway?
Seeing the cup as a hindrance, the ASL decided to bag the tournament of 1924-25. Then the league improperly brought in foreign players. As a consequence, the national body suspended the ASL, making it an outlaw league, and started its own league.
The competing leagues were financial cannibals to each other. A weaker ASL continued but got hit by the Great Depression. With fewer people in the stands, the ASL folded after the 1932-33 season. Soccer historian Dave Litterer wrote that the end of the original ASL “marked the end of the golden age of American Soccer.”
The USSF relaxed its expectations on professional teams, a decision hardly noticed due to the absence of true professional teams. The country did not see a resurgence of pro soccer for 35 years.
We cannot accuse MLS investors of being afraid to repeat history. Nor can we suspect that USSF has told them “sign up or be banned”. We can assume that both sides know that there is value in keeping the tournament legit and that they think it could be a bigger deal in the future.
Until that day comes, we’ll keep dealing with the playful coexistence. Every April we’ll listen to MLS execs talk about the tournament, act like it’s a burden, say they will compete, give us second stringers, and move on with life.
It’s better than the alternative.