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U.S. Soccer, MLS in ‘near-daily’ talks about U.S. Open Cup entries: Sources

U.S. Soccer is continuing to discuss ways in which Major League Soccer will participate in the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, sources briefed on the talks told The Athletic. Sources were granted anonymity due to the ongoing discussions at this week’s U.S. Soccer Annual General Meeting in Dallas.

In December, MLS announced its intention to replace its teams with teams from its reserve/developmental league, MLS Next Pro, in the U.S. Open Cup, the United States’ single-elimination cup competition that involves teams from all levels of U.S. soccer (much like England’s FA Cup). Five days later, the federation issued a public statement that “(a)fter thoughtful consideration, we have informed MLS that the U.S. Soccer staff recommendation … is that the request be denied.”

In response, MLS said it was “committed to finding a viable solution for the 2024 tournament and is working to find a pathway that addresses its goals and concerns.” In its initial announcement, the league said it intended to pull its teams from the tournament due to fixture congestion and a desire to provide Next Pro teams with a higher level of competition.

Major League Soccer has been in discussions with U.S. Soccer about the Open Cup on a “near-daily” basis since Jan. 1, according to sources briefed on the talks. The last week has also seen the U.S. Open Cup Committee (a group under U.S. Soccer’s purview) join in the dialogue; there is no expected “due date” for a resolution. The first round of the tournament is slated to kick off on March 19, although the draw has not yet been publicly scheduled.

One proposal being considered by U.S. Soccer would allow the nine U.S.-based MLS organizations that qualified for the 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup to not participate in the U.S. Open Cup, in order to decongest those teams’ schedules. Among the nine non-Canadian MLS teams in the Champions Cup field is the defending U.S. Open Cup champion, the Houston Dynamo. A source suggested that the Dynamo would be allowed to choose whether it wanted to defend its title if this plan was enacted.

Another proposal would allow MLS organizations to pick whether to enter its first team or its developmental side in the tournament field. If any organizations were allowed to field Next Pro sides, it isn’t clear if they would enter earlier in the competition alongside the other third-division clubs from USL League One and NISA.

Another previously discussed option would be for MLS to allow teams to expand their rosters for the tournament, with squad sizes that could double from the current MLS maximum of 30. Currently, the Open Cup’s only roster registration guidance is for clubs to follow their league’s rules. There is no U.S. Open Cup-specific roster registration.

A shared point of emphasis in these discussions is whether the draw can be redesigned to ensure that when MLS teams enter the field, they aren’t drawn against one another until that’s mathematically unfeasible. Currently, there are no limitations on matchups between two teams in the same league. However, that is coming into question given the fact that the tournament’s greatest intrigue comes from cross-divisional matchups, whereas an MLS-against-MLS clash in an early round does little to move the needle for the tournament.

Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer declined to comment.

There is some precedent of U.S. Soccer allowing MLS to field only a portion of the league’s eligible teams, as well as letting its developmental sides compete. From 1996 through 2011, MLS entered anywhere from half to all of its teams in the Open Cup field: five clubs of 10 in 1996, eight of 12 in 1999, and eight of 16 in 2011, to cite a few examples. Additionally, MLS was allowed to concurrently field its first teams and developmental sides from 2012 through 2015. In 2016, however, the policy was amended so that any team that is majority-owned by a higher-level professional team could not compete in the U.S. Open Cup.

It is unclear if any of these potential moves by MLS would be endorsable by U.S. Soccer under its current guidelines. Each professional league is sanctioned according to the USSF Pro League Standards (PLS), which set baseline expectations determining if a league is to be classified as being first-, second-, or third-division. Among the first criteria for first-division sanctioning states that “U.S.‐based teams must participate in all representative U.S. Soccer and CONCACAF competitions for which they are eligible.”

It is also unclear what the potential waiver would be that would allow MLS to make this change without throwing the integrity of the PLS and the aforementioned policy update into question. Ahead of the 2018 season, U.S. Soccer pointed to the PLS as justification to deny professional sanctioning to the NASL, which was the nation’s sanctioned second division from 2011 through 2017. The NASL then filed an antitrust lawsuit against U.S. Soccer, saying that the federation had broken that law to prohibit the NASL or other leagues from challenging MLS atop the U.S. soccer pyramid.

The federation has spent millions of dollars defending itself in the lawsuit, which remains unresolved. A decision to waive the PLS and allow MLS to opt out of the Open Cup would undoubtedly be relevant to that case.

(Photo: Hector Vivas / Getty Images)

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