Adrian Hanauer, general manager and part owner of the Seattle Sounders, is a soccer geek's soccer geek. This is a soccer executive who has been involved with the sport at almost every level and now finds himself making decisions about million-dollar players and how best to compete in international tournaments.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Hanauer has a special place in his heart for the U.S. Open Cup, and that was well before his team became the first MLS side to repeat as champions.
"I have always thought it was a great tournament and that it can be even bigger and better," said Hanauer, who helped guide the USL Sounders to the semifinals of the Open Cup in 2007 and '08. "It’s going to take some concerted effort, some thought, some strategy, some time, but I think my opinion has always been let's make it big and relevant or not do it. For me, there’s no middle ground."
So, it was frustrating for him to see during the buildup to Tuesday's final that one of the sub stories became the confusion over whether the winner of that game would earn a spot in next year's CONCACAF Champions League.
"That is not a way to promote a Cup game," he said bluntly.
The event itself, on the other hand, was the exact opposite.
Not just because of the 31,000-plus people that filled Qwest Field and stood and cheered from the first whistle until the end of the trophy ceremony. Not just because of the quality of play between two of the top teams in MLS. Not just because of the, literally, over-the-top celebrations by Sounders Osvaldo Alonso and Kasey Keller. Not just because of any one thing, but all of it.
For one of the first times in U.S. Open Cup history -- at least one assumes -- this felt like the culmination of a major tournament. The players from both teams, the front offices of both organizations and the fans of both sides (yes there was a pocket of Crew fans) were jointly responsible and deserve to pat themselves on the back.
The key now is figuring out how to make this stick.
Hopefully, other fans and organizations will see that it's OK to treat this like a big deal (and to be sure, there are already teams like DC United and the Chicago Fire who have always treated this tournament with the proper respect), that it's OK to trumpet your success and just fine to be upset when you fail. Maybe an event like this one will make it less acceptable for certain former U.S. National Team coaches to say the timing of the tournament "doesn't make sense" or to liken it to a series of reserve games.
"It’s frustrating because you have some great opportunities and this definitely helps," Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. "But how do they get teams to treat it a little more seriously? I don’t understand it either. A EPL season has 38 games and we only play 30 so those extra games don’t seem like that big of a deal."
In order for that to happen, though, the media and fans must play our parts. Now that we've seen how much fun an Open Cup title can be, let's not deride DC United for proclaiming "We Win Trophies"; let's make room for early-round games on our websites; let's promise to attend at least one non-finals match.
The organizations, both MLS teams and the U.S. Soccer Federation, must also hold up their ends of the bargain. Playing reserves against lower-division teams doesn't strike me as particularly problematic, but it's definitely time to do something about the preliminary rounds where MLS teams essentially do treat them like glorified reserve games.
One way would be to reconfigure the tournament so that all 16 U.S.-based MLS teams get automatic entry into the main draw, as opposed to the six that automatically qualify via regular-season standings plus the two additional teams that get in through the preliminary rounds in which the other non-automatically qualifying MLS teams play against one another. As it currently stands, 32 lower-division sides play two rounds against one another before meeting MLS teams in what is essentially the tournament's Round of 16.
True to his inner soccer geek, Hanauer had some ideas about this as well.
"Anything is feasible," he said. "As long as U.S. Soccer is willing to be flexible and open to suggestions and constructive criticism, I think that to your point that there are lots of different things."
One idea Hanauer threw out was having a preseason tournament for all the non-automatic qualifiers. An even more intriguing idea he had was having a postseason tournament that would feature the nonplayoff teams competing for Open Cup berths.
"The teams that don’t qualify are sometimes interested in finding ways to keep their players around longer so that they don’t have such a long vacation," Hanauer said. "But if there’s nothing to train for, it's tough to keep the guys motivated.
"The teams that make the playoffs are already playing at a minimum of two more weeks. So at a minimum if we don’t make the playoffs you can tell your team that at the very least we’re going to have two more weeks of qualifiers."
The added bonus to this kind of postseason tournament is that it if it's seeded based on regular-season standings then teams continue to have something to play for even after they are eliminated from the playoff race.
"It’s going to be a long time before we have promotion/relegation, but we can create a scenario by which the games between the teams at the bottom of the table are meaningful."
Hanauer knows that he's a probably more interested in this tournament than many in MLS, so he understands why the Open Cup does not draw the interest similar tournaments receive in other parts of the world. He doesn't begrudge fans for being confused by the format. He doesn't demand that other organizations play their first-team players -- heck, he takes great pride in the fact that the Sounders' run featured 23 different players.
What he doesn't get is why teams would undermine themselves by openly downplaying a competitive match.
"If that’s the menality they want to have and the message they want to send their fans, then they are free to do so," Hanauer said. "I think it’s bad business to tell your fans that as a team you don’t care about winning something.
"We put a bunch of reserves in certain games, but I think there are internal and external messages that people have to be aware of. For me, it’s just pure and simple that I care about it and it’s going to be important to our organization. If you don’t care about it, don’t say it. It’s just the wrong message anyway."
You don't have to be a soccer geek to see the logic in that.