HARRISON, NJ - JUNE 28: John Rooney #16 of the New York Red Bull celebrates the game winning goal as Qwame Holder #16 of FC New York looks on during the third round of the 2011 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on June 28, 2011 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. Red Bulls defeated FC New York 2-1 (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)
MLS teams still, apparently, have the ability to "buy" home games, but maybe that's not so bad.
The U.S. Open Cup is fond of calling itself our country's oldest continuously running national championship. It's now in its 99th year of operation. Of course, it hasn't gotten this far without some rule changes. This year marked a rather significant one, as blind bidding was done away with for the early rounds and more of a traditional draw was employed.
As we learned this week, though, that doesn't necessarily mean money stops playing a role in who hosts the matches. The Portland Timbers have apparently purchased the right to host a possible match with the USL-Pro's Wilmington Hammerheads. Although official word has been slow to leak, the assumption is that the Timbers did this by cutting the Hammerheads a check, by guaranteeing them a higher percentage of the gate or through some other monetary means. There were also rumors that the Seattle Sounders were looking into the possibility of working out a similar agreement with the NASL's Atlanta Silverbacks. For all we know, numerous other MLS teams could have the same plans.
Understandably, there was a bit of moaning about this. The "purity" of a the draw was simply undermined, as was the possibility of more MLS teams being forced to play road games against lower-division opponents.
I'm having a hard time working up much righteous indignation, though.
As we all should know by now, the business model of lower-division soccer is pretty harsh no matter which country you're playing in. In the United States, where there's not even a possibility of promotion, it's even tougher. Teams come and go literally every year, and it's treated as a minor miracle when they can stick around for more than five years.
With that economic reality as a backdrop, it's hard for me to second-guess any lower-division team that decides it's better to sell off the hosting rights than to keep the rights for themselves. Does it undermine the competition? Probably. Is it better than a straight-up bidding process in which the USSF gets the money instead of the teams? I certainly don't think so.
At least in the current setup, lower-division teams have a real chance to host games if that's what they want to do. In the case of the Sounders-Silverbacks, that's exactly what appears to be happening. The Sounders supposedly inquired about hosting, but the Silverbacks may have been more interested in actually giving their fans a chance to see MLS competition. Good for them.
The Hammerheads, however, apparently didn't see the same kind of upside. I can't blame them.
No, this isn't exactly the FA Cup, where the Manchester Cities of the world are forced to play at the Ipswich Towns for no other reason than blind luck. But American teams also don't work on budgets that are literally 100 times that of their opponents, either.
The U.S. Open Cup is far from perfect and can still be a bit messy, but it's getting better. Right now, I'm satisfied with moving it in the right direction.