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The Big Pitcher – Open Season

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

There’s still a certain, in some places significant, portion of the sports-going population in this country who will look at you funny when you try to explain the U.S. Open Cup to them.

WIth apologies to the diehards who have been there since Bethlehem Steel was winning tournaments, the vast majority of us have stumbled into the tournament in recent years as supporters or rational soccer-watching beings. This alone is enough to engender some skepticism in the part of the population that believes sporting loyalties are passed down like color-blindness or gingerism, through the bloodlines. They don’t believe in the kind of willful generational shift the USOC has seen that has boosted interest in the tournament in recent years. 

Because make no mistake, people should be watching. The tournament has a lot going for it. There’s its history for one – the 100th edition this year! – but to say that we should care about the 2013 running because of all that history is an argument only a baseball person could love, and ignores the ways the Cup combines some of the elements we love most in our sports, including:

Single elimination format: Single elimination makes everything from Pinewood Derbies to Mortal Kombat better. We love it so much we spend the entire month of March voting , and by the year 2024, presidential primaries will be held as a series of four online votes rather than on a state-by-state basis as each party winnows its bracket of 16 contenders down to a lone presidential candidate.

Underdogs:  Last time I wrote about the difficulties involved in projecting a player’s performance at different levels of competition. Here’s a chance to find out firsthand what happens when some young amateurs or career lower-leaguers go up against teams a couple of levels up on the pyramid, giving those of us who ordinarily couldn’t care less about a midweek May game between two Midwest teams the slightest bit of a rooting interest to serve as a foothold into the match.

Rivalries: With those underdogs comes a whole new ecosystem of local or regional grudge matches. Last Tuesday, PDL darlings FC Tucson dropped in-state rivals and USL-Pro debutantes Phoenix FC in the first USOC game either team has ever played. Last season’s fourth-round featured a much-anticipated grudge match between eventual-finalists Seattle and their bitter regional rivals…Cal FC?

But caring about the USOC is still a learned response. As sports fans in America, we’re trained not to give a crap about assorted cups and prizes. Why should our team waste energy and resources competing for a trophy when trophies are what everyone gets at the end of the T-ball season for participating?

Our sporting landscape is littered with adjunct and inessential competitions: all-star games in every sport, 34 out of 35 college football bowl games, the AFC South. Quick, name the last three winners of the Maui Invitational? Do they still have the Maui Invitational? How about the World Baseball Classic; is that still a thing?

Even those of us who care deeply about the world of soccer hold onto some of these attitudes. If you’re like me, then more than one of the soccer people you follow on Twitter thought they were being super-clever when they congratulated Chelsea for winning the European NIT on Wednesday. That’s a little unfair – no one knows who won the 2013 NITbut even UEFA is making noise about trying to find more efficient ways of making money than a second-class tournament.

For us, the currency of success is championships. The only trophies that matter are the larger, more famous ones that come with titles, the ones that Yankees teams the world over can shove straight up their you-know-where. I grew up a Braves fan, and the regret I feel looking at this picture outweighs the pride. (Yes, we were spoiled and Atlanta is on the whole a terrible baseball city. But still.)

Which is what makes the USOC interesting from a sporting perspective: By existing in that gap between top-level championship and utter insignificance, it pushes us to ask what makes a competition matter in the first place. Is it the stakes or the audience? Whose caring matters more, the players or the fans?

There are some fans who care deeply about their team’s fate in the USOC, and some for whom it would be a nifty bonus, the cherry on top of a successful season. I don’t question the first group’s passion, though I do believe that passion stems more than a little from passive overseas peer pressure; namely, that our model soccer nations all have high-stakes cup competitions that supporters care deeply about, so clearly since we are becoming a soccer nation ours should be high-stakes and deeply-cared-about as well.

Here’s the thing: The U.S. Open Cup doesn’t have to matter for you to appreciate its benefits. It’s a well-constructed and wonderfully fun sporting event on its own. The next time someone looks at you funny, that’s all you need to say.

Tags: Big Pitcher, We’ve Got History

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