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Crime And Punishment

Ever since the news Monday that the five US-based North American Soccer League teams won’t be eligible to play in this year’s Lamar Hunt US Open Cup competition, the blogosphere has been in an uproar. Those who haven’t been hopping mad have been espousing conspiracy theories or suggesting Open Cup exclusion was either a way to push the sanctioning vote through (which happened, narrowly) or punishment for causing this whole mess in the first place.

I’ve been thinking about these things, starting from the position that USSF’s official explanation – that there wasn’t time to work the NASL teams into the Cup format this year – was disingenuous. US Soccer hasn’t released the Open Cup format until late April or early May in each of the last two years and, to my knowledge, MLS hasn’t yet announced how it’ll determine its competitors, so the “Sorry, we were so efficient this year that we actually had this all planned out well ahead of time, maybe next year” excuse didn’t ring true. (To be fair, USSF announced the 2007 USOC format on January 29, so there is precedent). Since then, I’ve been told by two people closer to the situation than I am that USSF actually does have the thing worked out and the explanation is true. So maybe Occam’s Razor is in play here. In which case, I was totally wrong on that and my tweet about it probably started more of a brouhaha than it should have.

If that explanation doesn’t ring true to you, though, then we’re down to “USSF has it out for the NASL and wants it to fail,” “USSF is punishing the NASL for dragging everybody into this whole unpleasantness” or, my particular favorite, “MLS is afraid of playing NASL teams in the Open Cup because of the potential embarrassment if they lose.” I can’t think of another possibility. But let’s look at them one at a time after the jump.

“USSF has it out for the NASL and wants it to fail”
MLS would, of course, be complicit in this if you believe the nonsensical ravings of a lunatic mind. So, why, then, would USSF honcho Sunil Gulati basically circumvent the Federation’s own procedures and then not bring the measure to a vote of the full AGM? Why would Gulati and MLS Commissioner Don Garber abstain from the Board of Directors vote (which would have gone from 6-5 “for” to 7-6 “against” had they both voted “no”)? It seems to me that Gulati abused his power to shepherd this through so the NASL could play this year. Was it for selfish reasons (to avoid a potentially messy lawsuit)? Was it to avoid looking like the bad guy? Was it to let the NASL sink or swim on its own? Or was it to give the nascent league a chance to deliver on its promises? I don’t know. But those who would espouse the theory that USSF or MLS are trying to kill the NASL don’t seem to have a lot of ammunition on this one.

“USSF is punishing the NASL for dragging everybody into this whole unpleasantness”
I have heard there’s an element of vindictiveness in this, but I don’t know how much stock to put in it, given when I heard that, it was “They’re not going to get sanctioning mainly because so many people are pissed at (NASL CEO) Aaron Davidson.” Obviously, not everyone’s buying what Davidson is selling, as five board members voted “no” on sanctioning (we don’t know which ones), but there’s no evidence that he pissed off enough or the wrong people (unless Gulati was better at arm-twisting in Las Vegas than he was in, to use a location completely at random for no reason, Zurich).

And then, I’m still at a loss to figure out exactly what “punishment” there is in not having to play in the Open Cup (sorry, Lamar, love ya). So you don’t get a June midweek game against either another team in your league or someone from USL-Pro and the chance to maybe play an MLS team later? Where there’s a 70 percent chance you’ll be eliminated (MLS teams are 70-30-14 against the second division and have advanced in 80 of 114 matchups)? You might miss out on the $10,000 prize you’d get for being the last Division II team standing, sure, but $10,000? With the money Traffic is floating to get this league off the ground? Granted, you can’t win the $100,000 for taking home the trophy, but, let’s be honest here: Division II teams are 1-for-15 and their chances of even making the semifinals are slim (besides only getting three teams in 15 years through to the final, the lower divisions have only filled 11 of the 60 semifinal berths since 1996).

Being shut out from the CONCACAF Champions League would be unfortunate (especially if you believe the potential financial ramifications), but the winner of the 2011 US Open Cup wasn’t guaranteed to get an automatic berth to the CCL anyway.

So I am really not seeing the “punishment” part. Fake Sigi mentions “withholding a stamp of legitimacy,” which I’d tend to agree with more if the Open Cup had a stamp of legitimacy itself.

“MLS is afraid of playing NASL teams in the Open Cup because of the potential embarrassment if they lose.”
I covered this above, but, yes, 30 times a Division II team has beaten an MLS team in the Open Cup, though nearly half of those (13 of 30) have been by two clubs (neither of which is actually in the NASL at the moment): Rochester (7) and Charleston (6).

Division II teams with USOC
Wins over MLS Teams
Rochester Rhinos* 7
Charleston Battery* 6
Minnesota Thunder# 4
Seattle Sounders* 4
Richmond Kickers* 2
Carolina RailHawks 1
Connecticut Wolves# 1
Long Island Rough Riders* 1
Milwaukee Rampage# 1
Nashville Metros* 1
Pittsburgh Riverhounds* 1
Staten Island Vipers# 1
*No longer in Division II
#No longer exist

(If you’re wondering, the Galaxy is 8-1 lifetime against D2, and DC United is 11-2-1, while Colorado’s 4-6-0 mark and Chivas USA’s 1-3-0 are MLS’ nadir.)

MLS has, does and will likely always lose matches to lower-division teams in the USOC (six of the losses came in one tournament – 1999, with four more in 2005). That’s the nature of the beast. Yet it hasn’t stopped the league from growing, building stadiums, adding sponsors or getting television deals. The Galaxy losing to Puerto Rico in the Champions League was a bigger deal and even that hasn’t killed them (Puerto Rico wouldn’t be participating in the US Open Cup anyway).

So if you’ve got another conspiracy theory, bring it on. Given what I’ve learned in the last 24 hours, it looks like we were all wrong, too quick to jump the gun and believe the worst. To be fair, you can’t actually blame anyone for taking the under when it comes to USSF’s preparedness or organization of a major event, but to the extent I contributed to the climate of disbelief, I apologize.

20 Responses to Crime And Punishment

  1. Hmm, my theory isn’t in there… it’s that MLS doesn’t need to include a provisional league in the U. S. Open Cup. Once NASL has official sanctioning (which in my opinion will be never), they would be included, but while they are in provisional/probational status, they are not included.

    However, if that were the case, USSF probably would have just said that, rather than saying it was because the schedule was already done. When do they need to release the USOC schedule for you to believe that was the real reason?

  2. You mean “USSF doesn’t need to include a provisional league,” right? And that’s a valid point. They certainly could have said that.

    I’m told the format actually exists as this moment and may be mere hours or minutes from being released or leaked. If it actually happens anytime in the next week, I’d almost have to believe that was the real reason. As it is, given the two people who told me it’s done, I’m almost there anyway.

    And while I’m not from Missouri, you still have to show me.

  3. […] On conspiracy theories and the possibility we were all wrong about the #USOpenCup thing. […]

  4. I’m told that when the reason for leaving NASL clubs out of the USOC was given, people with the league asked to see the schedule and USSF declined to share it.

    Either it doesn’t exist and the action is punitive, or USSF just didn’t feel like they owed the NASL any proof.

    Honestly, I’m going with the latter. I find it hard to believe that anybody could rationalize leaving teams out of a competition that doesn’t bring much in terms of money or prestige as “punishment.” One that isn’t ridiculously petty, anyway (and yes, I know there are people out there who would find it easy to believe that USSF could be that petty).

  5. What do you think about the costs associated with playing in the USOC playing a factor in the decision to exclude NASL teams? Considering travel costs or costs associated with hosting a games, coupled with lower than normal attendance (typically) compared to league games, Open Cup could end up being more of a burden on NASL teams. As a way to cut costs, NASL teams could have offered to sit out the competition as a way that the league will be able to survive the season by saving money.

    Not that there is any substance to this conspiracy of mine, just wondering what your thoughts.

  6. Well, IF an actual format is produced here before too long, that would lend credence to that theory.

    Then there’s the “could you conceivably have re-worked it before June 1, when things really get going anyway?” I figure you could have.

    But if it involved having promised, say, the amateur levels a certain number of representatives and then you had to go back on that, that would be bad, too. There’s a whole lot of Open Cup stuff that takes place before you and I ever see the tournament proper get started.

    As to the general point, I say if they’re in USSF’s semi-good graces, even provisionally, of course they should be in the tournament.

    (As an aside, the other potential explanation – and the one I thought of immediately – was that the NASL didn’t really care one way or the other, that dealing with the Open Cup on top of everything else they’re trying to get done might have been one more nuisance. That may or may not have held water.)

  7. Garrett: Go Gators.

    That’s a possibility. Open Cup games are not a windfall by any means for almost anybody who plays in it. That said, if you’re going to be a league, if you’re going to be professional, if you’re going to say you’ll do things better than they’ve been done before, it’s probably the cost of doing business.

    I am not sure the cost savings for those five teams will make or break them, honestly.

  8. Yeah, I agree that sitting out of the Open Cup alone will make or break them, but I was thinking that this could be one of a couple of things they did to show they could make it financially.

  9. Anyone have a decent idea of what it DOES cost per game for teams to participate in the USOC? We’re talking at least a couple of games x 5 teams, some would play at least 3 games (I’d hope) and collectively I guess it could add up. I’ve brought this up also as one motivation for the NASL and USSF to agree it would be best for us to sit it out this year, but as Kenn also points out the financial burden might not really be THAT much of a deal breaker.

    It really is starting to look more and more like a bad case of timing regarding the yanked provisional sanctioning and the setting of this year’s USOC format/field. I’d like a reason to be hating on the USSF, but can’t find one here. Sigh, maybe next time. 😛

  10. Let’s just take a D2 team for example, though some of the numbers apply to other levels, they’re just different numbers and they’re higher as you go up.

    If you host a game in the USOC, you have to open your stadium (if you play it there) and pay all the attendant costs (rent, gameday workers, supplies, etc.). If a league match – which is on the schedule and included in your season ticket package – is a money-loser (which many are), this might be worse.

    If your players aren’t paid by the game, you don’t have that additional cost as it’s a fixed salary, but it’s still a money in vs. money out deal. And as most USOC matches are midweek (and many at short notice), they’re tough to market and tough to make a profit on.

    The carrot out there is an MLS team coming to your yard, which can make a big financial difference, though unless you get lucky and draw the Galaxy, you may not realize a windfall. Being the last club from your level of play standing can make a difference, as it did to Harrisburg a couple years back.

    If you have to travel, I BELIEVE the Federation pays your travel expenses, but I’m not 100% sure of that. They used to. I don’t know. But you still don’t generate revenue on the game.

  11. It’s punishment for NASL being owned by “foreigners”

  12. I knew I should have typed slower.

  13. I’m still having a hard time believing that they weren’t able to fit them into the format. There are 16 non-MLS pro teams (D2/D3), the same as in 2009 and more one than in 2010 (when that spot was filled by a PDL/PSA playoff).

    Garrett’s suggestion has some merit, and it probably isn’t something that USSF would want public (the suggestion that teams lose money on the Open Cup probably isn’t something you want reported). But, as Kenn points out, it’s hard to see an Open Cup run making the difference in a league that thinks Edmonton-Puerto Rico matches make sense.

    Fake Sigi’s “stamp of legitimacy” makes the most sense to me. Yeah, the Open Cup isn’t a particularly significant badge of honor. But it’s obvious that this was a pretty heated issue. You had nearly 18 months of the NASL/USL wars— the TOA, the split, the temp league, NASL’s provisional sanctioning, then it’s non-sanctioning, and finally a 6-5 vote where the two heavyweights of the committee abstained. Denying the Open Cup is basically symbolic, but at least it’s something less than full status.

  14. From what I understand, the format IS done and will be released if not today then soon. It supposedly includes 8 MLS teams, 11 USL-Pro teams, 4 NPSL teams (have they been included before?), 8 USASA teams and 9 PDL teams. So, basically, 21 amateur teams and 19 pro teams.

    Now, you could make the case that it’s February 17 and the tournament doesn’t start until June, and could you fit those five teams in somewhere, somehow? You’d think there’d be a way.

    But in terms of the explanation that “We already had the format done,” it appears that was, indeed, the case.

  15. And just as I write that, the release comes through:

    From the U.S. Soccer Communications Center:


    Amateurs to Make Up More than Half of the Tournament Field;
    Eight MLS Teams to Enter Tournament on June 28 in Third Round

    CHICAGO (Feb. 17, 2011) – The 98th edition of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup will get underway on June 14 with 16 first-round games. Five rounds of play precede the Oct. 4 final that will decide the U.S. Soccer national club championship.

    The more than 155 teams that entered the competition beginning in the initial stages will be narrowed to 40 teams for the tournament proper by the May 30 qualifying deadline. In 2011, 19 professional teams – including eight from Major League Soccer – and 21 amateur teams will make up the field.

    The first and second rounds will be made up of exclusively lower division and amateur teams and will be played on June 14 and June 21, respectively, with eight teams advancing to play eight MLS teams on June 28 in the third round.

    The quarterfinals will be played on July 12 and the semifinals will be played on Aug. 30. All 2011 U.S. Open Cup matches are scheduled to be played on Tuesdays.

    The tournament has crowned a champion for 97 consecutive years beginning in 1914. Every winning team’s name is engraved on the base of the Dewar Challenge Trophy which dates to the first year of the tournament and currently resides at U.S. Soccer House in Chicago.

    The two-time defending champion Seattle Sounders will enter the tournament in the third round and will be the first team since 1984 with a chance of winning three consecutive U.S. Open Cup titles. The New York Greek-Americans (1967-69) were the only other team to accomplish this feat.

    Like recent editions, the U.S. Open Cup is a single-elimination tournament, with games tied after regulation extended by two 15-minute overtime halves. If a winner is not determined in overtime, advancement will be determined by kicks from the penalty spot.

    The 2011 champion will earn a $100,000 cash prize, while the runner-up will collect $50,000. The top Division III and Amateur Division clubs will each receive a $10,000 prize. No Division II teams will participate in the 2011 U.S. Open Cup as the North American Soccer League did not obtain provisional sanctioning in time to be included.

    2011 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Schedule
    May 30: Qualifying Deadline
    June 14: First Round (32 teams from USL PRO and Amateur Division)
    June 21: Second Round (First round winners)
    June 28: Third Round (Second round winners paired against eight MLS teams)
    July 12: Quarterfinals
    Aug. 30: Semifinals
    Oct. 4: Final

    Participating Teams
    Major League Soccer (Division I – 8 teams): Six automatic qualifiers based on the 2010 regular season standings and two qualifiers from a play-in competition that features 10 teams.
    Automatic Qualifiers (6 berths): Columbus Crew, FC Dallas, Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders

    Play-in Qualifiers (2 berths): Chicago Fire, Chivas USA, Colorado Rapids, D.C. United, Houston Dynamo, New England Revolution, Philadelphia Union, Portland Timbers, San Jose Earthquakes, Sporting Kansas City

    United Soccer Leagues PRO (Division III – 11 teams): All U.S.-based clubs automatically qualify.

    Automatic Qualifiers (11 berths): Charleston Battery, Charlotte Eagles, Dayton Dutch Lions, Harrisburg City Islanders, Los Angeles Blues, FC New York, Orlando City, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Richmond Kickers, Rochester Rhinos, Wilmington Hammerheads

    United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League (Amateur – 9 teams): The top U.S.-based club from each of nine PDL divisions will qualify based on the results of four pre-selected 2011 regular season games. Each of the 54 teams eligible will play two home and two away matches that will serve as qualifiers.

    U.S. Adult Soccer Association (Amateur – 8 teams): The first and second place teams from each of the four U.S. Soccer regions will advance to the tournament. Approximately 50 teams entered qualifying at the local or state level.

    National Premier Soccer League (Amateur – 4 teams): The process for determining NPSL qualifying teams will be announced in the coming weeks. The 36-team national amateur league is affiliated with the USASA. In previous years its teams participated via USASA regional qualifying.

  16. Releasing the Open Cup schedule isn’t sufficient for hard-core conspiracy theorists. It leads to the next question: “Why did they have to release it so early? It wasn’t released until April in one of the past two years!!!!”

    However, to rebut that, as far as I’m concerned, I never got why the schedule has been released so late the past couple years. If the Open Cup is going to have a ‘stamp of legitimacy’, as you say, it should be organized better, and getting a schedule out earlier (to allow those fanboys to plan their trips!!!!!!!11!!1!;)) nudges it that direction a little.

    Never did understand why they took so long. Despite the “10 MLS teams knockout for just 2 spots” part, I’m glad to see this out now.

    Oh, and a final word on conspiracies. Don’t know the original source for this, but I always adhere to “There’s a lot more stupidity and a lot less conspiracy than you think.”

  17. And its corollary with regards to officiating, “Never confuse ineptitude with corruption.”

    I was thinking about it this morning….you COULD still wedge the five NASL teams in there, but it would require either awkward play-ins or byes or increasing the size of the field (presumably by adding more amateur teams).
    In that case, you’re adding another round, and the USOC hasn’t had that “extra” round (then the 4th round) since 2006.

  18. Or adding in more MLS teams;)

  19. Either way.

    I don’t think that was an option, though.

    In any case, you had a certain timeframe and a certain number of spots committed, and you weren’t about to go back to the NPSL or something and say “Oops, sorry, guess what? You thought you were going to have four slots, now you’re going to have one. Sorry.”

    So the only solution would have been to expand the tournament and I’m not sure that would have been the best option. The more I look at this the more I see “bad timing” and nothing more than that. The NASL doesn’t have too many people to blame other than themselves in this situation, not that their fanboys won’t find someone else to blame.

  20. And the terrific Neil Morris has this from Aaron Davidson today:

    “Frankly, from our perspective—I don’t want this to come out the wrong way—but we need to focus on our league right now,” said Davidson. “The US Open Cup is a phenomenal tournament, it gives you a chance to play MLS teams in games that matter, and it gives you a chance if you win it all you get to go to the [CONCACAF] Champions League. But, at the end of the day, we all know we’d rather focus on this league this season.


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