DC United is three games away from one of the most unusual achievements in soccer. Should they fail to beat Philadelphia, Kansas City or Houston this month, they will end the season with three wins - the fewest in MLS history, of course, but that's not the weird bit. DC United has a chance to be one of the few teams, if not the first team, to win more games in their domestic cup tournament than in their domestic league season. (As a comparison - Wigan Athletic won nine games in the Premiership last season - good enough to compete in the Championship this season - while winning the six games required for the FA Cup. A little over a hundred years ago, winning an FA Cup was enough to spare a team relegation, which might not be a bad thing to bring back, but I'm not the king of the FA.) DC's four wins in the Open Cup this year all came against MLS opponents - they tied in the fourth round against Richmond, and went through on penalties. If the Kickers had won the shootout, one might be forced to conclude that this has not been a successful season for DC United.
Another way to gauge the relative importance of the Open Cup in the grand scheme of things. Quite a few coaches have been fired in Major League Short Attention Span after bringing home a trophy the season before - Frank Yallop is the most recent example. But even this league has yet to sack a coach immediately after a trophy-winning season. Ben Olsen is, of course, in danger of being the first. Something about winning a game every three months or so tends to annoy, it seems. If you think winning the Open Cup, however, is enough to save Olsen's job...well, you value the Open Cup very highly indeed.
And good for you. The game needs more fans like you. Ideally every trophy would be valued, if not equally, then within reasonable distances of each other. None of them are explicitly inferior to the other two. So what can we do to boost the Open Cup? It already comes with a CONCACAF Champions League ticket. If we wanted to be funny about it, it could come with a free pass to the MLS playoffs. If we wanted to be hilarious about it, we could extend that offer to lower division teams. Think the Galaxy would finally take the Open Cup seriously again, if their fifth place spot could be gazumped by the Indy Eleven out of nowhere?
The only realistic solution I have is strictly cosmetic. One reason MLS Cup trumps the other two, or at least one reason MLS Cup is seen to trump the other two? Stars over the crest. In Italy, the Cup winner gets to sport a little badge called a "coccarda" the next season. Something like that might be appropriate for American teams.
"But what about Canadian teams? Do they get to wear something for winning their Pyramid Scheme Funfest?" Why not. It's something fun they can put on their jerseys and sell to their supporters, or at least on the "authentic" jerseys if they feel like being greedy jerks about it. And yes, the Supporters Shield winner should have the right to wear something similar. I'm basically a fan of teams festooning themselves with medals like junta colonels.
I do have one other idea, at least for the final. Someday, when the US Soccer Hall of Fame once again takes physical form (like Voldemort or Sauron), the Open Cup final can be held on induction weekend as the Hall of Fame Game. The immediately obvious downside is the lack of easy home field advantage tickets. But the Open Cup should be about tradition and prestige, things hardcore fans have embraced. I'm also assuming the new Hall will be somewhere slightly more accessible to passenger aircraft than, to pick an example at random, Oneonta, New York. So let the fans travel. The Open Cup should be a neutral site game - especially now that MLS Cup isn't - and hopefully the loss of Seattle and Salt Lake home crowds will be made up by Seattle and Salt Lake fans jaunting to see the Final and the Hall.
It's appropriate that DC United won the 100th version of the tournament, because DC United was after all the first MLS team to win the tournament - back when Bruce Arena cared about winning the thing. Had MLS followed the NASL's lead, and kept the Open Cup as the province of amateur teams, the tournament would have been much worse off.
I shouldn't use myself as an example, but I have a feeling I'm not the only one who did this when introduced to American first division soccer. In 1996, I suggested in passing how cool an American FA Cup would be - only to be astonished to discover such a thing already existed, and had for over eighty years without interruption. More astonished, because I had heard of the Open Cup - as in, "Oh, yeah, the thing the San Francisco Greek Americans won a couple of years ago...wait, isn't that only for amateurs?" Turns out it wasn't - no thanks to the original NASL, and much thanks to MLS. Had MLS decided to follow the lead of the NASL, well, the anniversary celebration would have been a much more limited affair.
Another of my hobby-horse pet unicorns came up - I've grown fond of saying that the Open Cup is the second-longest continually contested cup competition in the world. Where it stands overall is - well, confusing as hell, to be totally honest, and I'm trying to pin down officially where the LHUSOC stands on the list that the FA Cup heads and the Pyramid Scheme Canadian Hoedown sets at the bottom of. But I'm convinced that the Northern Irish Cup has been continually contested every year since 1881, and the LHUSOC obviously every year since 1913...with no one in between.
So when Graham Parker said on two different prestigious sites that Coppa della Lamar is third - well, as usual, I've racked my brains and come up with nothing. Interestingly, the headline on the Al-Jazeera site said third-longest overall, an assertion that should never have gotten past the proofreading stage. But that doesn't mean there is a tournament somewhere that hasn't been contested every year that I'm not aware of.
That means, by the way, every year, no breaks. No World Wars, no civil wars, no labor stoppages, no alien invasions. Every year.
Why does that matter? Well, it puts the United States very high on the list. We're trying to market the thing, aren't we? It's possible that holding wars, famines, epidemics and genocides against innocent soccer tournaments isn't the most glorious way to promote a tournament, but baseball and hockey had no trouble making similar boasts of indestructible longevity before capitalism ruined everything. The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, by one standard, was stronger than the FA Cup, the World Series, the Stanley Cup, and the XFL Million Dollar Game.
Even if we rate the Open Cup as "only" the sixth oldest, or eighth (or ninth, or tenth - I'm telling you, this is a confusing topic), it's still worth being proud of - and therefore, knowing for sure. There's always going to be the kind of new fan to the game who will be interested in learning its history. I was one, after all. The unbroken link from Thomas Swords to Chris Pontius should be more than a historical oddity.