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U.S. Open Cup -- relevant or distracting?

Before the Earthquakes return to MLS action this weekend against the New England Revolution, they welcome back Real Salt Lake to Buck Shaw Stadium for a midweek Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play-in match. Defeat RSL on Wednesday, and the Quakes advance to face either FC Dallas or DC United on the road with the winner entering the tournament at the round-of-16 stage. For San Jose, maneuvering through these two play-in games successfully would mark their first entry into the Cup tournament since 2005.

After two straight years of first-game eliminations, the Earthquakes can make amends by beating RSL and in some small measure, gain some revenge for their loss to the Utah club in the first round of qualifying for the 2008 U.S. Cup tournament. Most of us remember that match for the horrific collision between Quakes defenders Ryan Cochrane and Jay Ayers that left both players with significant head injuries. The team never recovered from that early incident and was subsequently dispatched by a final score of 4-0.

Last season, the Earthquakes hosted the New York Red Bulls in late April, but could not handle a team that would finish the 2009 MLS season as the worst road team in the league. The final score that night was 2-1 in favor of the Energy Drinks, as a late John Wolyniec goal eliminated the Quakes from the competition.

In both 2008 and 2009, the Earthquakes did not field their regular starting XI in these matches, instead choosing to go with a mostly reserve squad. In the stands, the number of supporters on hand could almost be counted on one hand -- I may be slightly exaggerating here. The question arises; do the teams or their fans care about qualifying for the longest running soccer tournament in the United States?

The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup as it is now called has been contested since 1914. Arguably, interest in the tournament has been tepid at best since World War II. Since the inception of MLS in 1996, top-flight professional teams have entered the ranks of the competitors, with the league's teams winning all but one final in those 14 years. Attention and attendances were barely noticeable throughout the modern stretch of tournaments, with only last season's attendance of 17,329 in the final between the Seattle Sounders and DC United garnering a crowd approaching the historical high of 21,583 in the 1929 final. To put that in perspective, the previous year's final, also played by DC United in RFK Stadium attracted just 8,212 hardy souls.

MLS teams in the tournament tend not to feature their regulars in these matches, save for the semi-finals and finals, so perhaps fans are excused for not showing an interest in attending these games. However, it seems clear that many of the clubs see little to be gained by going all out in the U.S. Open Cup when the MLS Playoff Cup is the true measure of the league's champion. Why risk injury in what many in soccer still consider a glorified exhibition competition?

Last year, the tournament received a publicity boost when the most followed franchise, the Seattle Sounders, stated their intention to bring their first hardware since joining MLS to the Emerald City. A third round contest away to the Portland Timbers sold out the USL-1 clubs stadium as fans from both sides reveled in the chance to see their clubs progress in the tournament. As the field narrowed to the two finalists, web-sites sprung up promoting the two participants, and fan rivalry finally reached a feverous high. As mentioned above, the attendance at cavernous RFK Stadium was the highest for an Open Cup final since earlier last century. In an exciting game, Seattle captured the trophy with a 2-1 victory.

The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) is the governing body behind the tournament. For many years it has been promoted as the National Championship, but still receives little attention outside of a hard core group of soccer supporters. Unlike the FA Cup in England, or the Copa Del Rey in Spain, where the final stages of the tournament are played out before a rapt national audience, the U.S. Open Cup continues to lose money financially for the USSF.

Do you, the fan of top-flight American soccer, care about this competition? Will you be there Wednesday night to watch the Earthquakes try to dispatch of Real Salt Lake? Do you want to see Coach Frank Yallop put out a top-notch starting XI against the defending MLS Cup champions with a chance to advance toward the "soccer sweet 16" coming this June? The Seattle Sounders organization and its fans proved to us in 2009 that this long running tournament could be special. I hope all MLS teams took notice and work to make 2010 the beginning of the reemergence of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup as the finest soccer tournament in our nation.