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Op-Ed: Why U.S. Soccer's U.S. Open Cup decision stinks

It was revealed today that Bethlehem Steel, and seven other USL sides, will not be eligible for the 2016 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup due to a policy change by the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

According to the blurb posted Thursday morning by thecup.us, the United States Soccer Federation amended their United States Open Cup eligibility requirements back on September 8th and effectively disqualified any USL team owned by a Major League Soccer club. There was no public announcement at the time however from the nation's soccer-governing body. Lower-level qualifiers for the 2016 tournament are already underway, so thecup.us likely broke this now to avoid having to answer questions about some of the USL teams' involvement. The teams that are now ineligible: Seattle Sounders 2, Portland Timbers 2, LA Galaxy 2, New York Red Bulls 2, Real Monarchs, Orlando City B, Swope Park Rangers, and Bethlehem Steel FC.

I understand the reasoning behind excluding them. The idea that one of these USL clubs facing its parent brings an immediate suspicion of collusion concerning the final outcome. That has to do both with the team sheet and the play on the field. The MLS side could call up the best players on the USL club so that they can't play against them, or there could be a suggestion from somewhere within the organization that the big club had better be allowed to go through to the next round. It makes logical sense if looking at it from that perspective.

However, I think this rule is for people who don't like fun. Here is the quote from the USSF amendment (via thecup.us), explaining the change:

"Any Outdoor Professional League Team that is majority owned by a higher-level Outdoor Professional League Team shall be ineligible to participate in the Open Cup.  The Open Cup Committee shall review and determine team eligibility annually pursuant to this provision and report its decisions to the National Board of Directors"

I don't expect them to change this rule any time soon, by the way.

We've seen the scenario before right here where Union faced Harrisburg City Islanders and didn't allow HCI to play any of the players Union assigned to them for the season. Because that relationship was a loan - and just like most every other loan scenario, the loaned player can't play against the team that owns his contract. I get that. Another example cited in the thecup.us post was a match between New York Red Bulls 2 and PDL's Jersey Express. NYRB2 couldn't use the NYRB players loaned to them, and they lost to Jersey Express. The United Soccer League Wikipedia page lists 19 clubs with MLS affiliations (Columbus Crew SC being the lone current MLS side without an affiliate). What prevents these affiliations from blurring the spirit of sportsmanship also? Those teams are still allowed to compete, potentially against their affiliate.

Another reason I don't like this ruling because it limits the amount of matches that the USL players will get against the level of competition that they are aspiring to play at. My belief is that a player gets better by playing against better players. I think all of the USL teams should have this opportunity to challenge their players putting them up against the first-division players. It would be valuable for MLS team staff to be able to scout a PDL player against other MLS competition. I know that the Open Cup is regionally-bracketed in the early and mid rounds to cut down on mid-week travel, but there's still no guarantee that parent club plays child club.

Are MLS teams worried about losing to a third-division team? For example, if Union were to lose to Bethlehem Steel, it's either because Philly played reserves or they weren't good enough to win. It's that simple. Maybe this scenario would keep first-teamers from feeling too secure about their place in the team. Many complained about the seeming complacency that set in at outside back following the trade of Sheanon Williams. Maybe having a match against BSFC could serve as a wake-up call, should a hungry, young player look to make a push to earn a MLS spot. It seems to me that the USSF is making another provision to ensure that the final is always going to be between two MLS sides. That way, they can be assured of getting television coverage, selling the more recognizable names. If an MLS team can't beat a USL team, they don't deserve to potentially win the Cup anyway.

The ruling is being justified as protecting the integrity of the tournament, but really they're taking the "Open" out of the U.S. Open Cup.