Two time U.S. Open Cup winners, the LA Galaxy have had different priorities than the Open Cup since last appearing in the final in 2006. Since 2009, LA has cemented a place as Major League Soccer’s dominant club, winning three MLS Cups and two Supporters Shields in that time. However, their past league form hasn’t translated into success in the U.S. Open Cup, with the side only advancing to the Quarterfinals twice in that time and missing out on tournament in 2008 and 2009.
LA are certainly not alone in this. Their opponent in the upcoming Quarterfinals of this year’s U.S. Open Cup, Real Salt Lake, have also achieved high league finishes without much success in the Open Cup. With their 2013 runner-up finish being the lone outlier, the Utah-based club has mostly exited the competition in their first or second game every year, and was also in the Open Cup wilderness, failing to qualify from 2007-2010.
However, both clubs are adamant that they are giving their all in this year’s Open Cup, and that they very much want to win the whole thing. “I think it’s a trophy that’s very prestigious in the U.S. right now,” RSL manager Jeff Cassar said to ussoccer.com. “Our club is all about winning championships, and this is a trophy that we take super seriously. It’s also probably the quickest way to gain entrance to the [CONCACAF] Champions League.”
LA Galaxy’s Associate Head Coach Dave Sarachan agrees with Cassar’s sentiment about the competition, adding that recent changes to the tournament have allowed clubs like the Galaxy to put more emphasis on the competition. “Obviously each year it brings on a different set of challenges, primarily with scheduling,” said Sarachan. “This tournament, mixed with regular season and friendly games means a lot of juggling for clubs. Fundamentally speaking, we try to take this Cup seriously every year. It’s a balancing act with scheduling and mixing up players. The common denominator in any of these competitions is that you try to win these things.”
Indeed, the Open Cup has undergone some changes over the past year or two. Now there are more rounds, and therefore more teams in the tournament. US Soccer has also restructured the competition from the Round of 16 on, providing a set, regional path for teams to work towards the final.
While the competition stresses regional matchups that make sense, the teams that advance from round-to-round don’t always allow for it to happen. In cases where sensible regional matchups cannot be found, pairings are determined by random selection, a process where the Galaxy have come out on the wrong end of things recently.
For the previous three years, the Galaxy have randomly been paired against the Carolina RailHawks and forced to travel to the opposite coast. In each instance, LA didn’t play their full lineup and lost to the NASL side each time.
“For many years the Open Cup required a lot of travel,” said Sarachan. “When you’re playing in these competitions it’s not always easy. When you play the RailHawks in Carolina, you’re playing a team that will be at its best to try to beat a high-profile team. I think the mentality these days has changed slightly as far as how teams treat this competition.”
It certainly is true that the top clubs seem to now view the Open Cup differently than they had in the past. In fact, for the first time since 2006, every team in the quarterfinals of the tournament come from Division I Major League Soccer after the two remaining lower-league teams, the New York Cosmos (NASL) and Charlotte Independence (USL), were defeated in the Round of 16 by the New York Red Bulls and Chicago Fire respectively.
And for the Galaxy, taking it seriously this year means likely playing new arrival Steven Gerrard on Tuesday night at RSL. If he does, it’ll mark the competitive debut for the winner of two FA Cups with Liverpool and 114 caps for England.
“I think historically speaking there have been more upsets in years past, but over the years as MLS teams get deeper and better squads we’re seeing them do better in the Open Cup,” said RSL defender Tony Beltran. “Teams are starting to realize that they’re only five games from both a trophy and a place in the Champions League. I’m glad that we’re seeing MLS teams put in their first squads these days. It’s clear that the perception [of the Cup] is different.”
Tony Beltran and Real Salt Lake dispatched familiar MLS foe the Portland Timbers in the Round of 16
and will be looking for a repeat performance against the LA Galaxy at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Both LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake could probably be doing better in the tight Western Conference. After 21 matches, LA currently sit fifth with an 8-6-7 MLS record, but their 31 points are just one off the top spot. RSL has had a tougher go of things, sitting ninth with a 5-7-8 league record and 23 points. Being in the same conference, both teams know they’re one match with a familiar opponent from being in the tournament’s semifinals.
“On Tuesday we’re going into the game with the mindset of any other home game. We want to impose our style of play on LA at our home stadium,” said Cassar. “The fact is, it does help that we’re playing LA, because it’s a team that we’re familiar with, a team we play twice a year no matter what. Because of all that, it’s important to both the players and the fans.”
However, in the only meeting between the two teams so far this season, LA came out on top 1-0 at the StubHub Center in LA on May 27. This victory, along with their current league position above RSL, has given the Galaxy’s players and staff reason to be hopeful ahead of this week’s Open Cup clash.
“They’ll put their best 11 on the field, so we know it’ll be a difficult task going out there,” said Sarachan. “But we’ll do the same. We know them and they know us, so it should be a good match. We’ll do everything that we can to win.”
Regardless of how they finish, members of both teams have stated they’ve noticed a real difference in the way both teams and fans now approach the Open Cup. What was perhaps a competition that once saw key players rested and empty stadiums in the past, is quickly becoming one of fervor and passion.
“The trend of the Cup is one that’s coming up, and the fans are starting to get behind the tournament,” said Beltran. “And really it’s kind of a fun tournament. Our fans get to see teams play that they normally would never get to watch. We’re really seeing a positive shift in the fans’ attitudes.”
Jeff Cassar seems to agree with his defender, and expressed a similar philosophy about going into the Cup’s quarterfinals. “When I was a player, the tournament definitely wasn’t like this,” said Cassar. “It was about resting your important players. Now it’s about getting the best results.”