From the perspective of somebody whose team plays in Major League Soccer, it can be hard to know how much to invest in the U.S. Open Cup: particularly so early in the tournament; particularly when your team has had to play their rivals so often. It says something for the dynamic between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders FC that despite being drawn together in Open Cup eight times over the last 15 years, the broader state of the rivalry remains strong.
To say the rivalry’s normal, MLS dynamic is still present in these Open Cup games, though, would be a little too much. Four or five years ago, when the Sounders were trying to extend their Open Cup supremacy and the Timbers early first-division return had them using full ammo on every front, there were some classic matches at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, Wash. But the fact that those matches were always being drawn in Tukwila, and the priorities around Open Cup evolved for MLS teams, have cast the competitions early rounds into a bifurcated world.
On one hand, you have those off-the-field dynamics, ones that require us to make a round-by-round assessment of where Open Cup fits into our worlds. On the other hand, there will be at least 22 players who’ll be asked to take tonight’s game, between the Timbers and Sounders at Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium, seriously. For them, the team’s benches, the coaching staffs and those around the squads, tonight is a derby. Nothing about these teams’ ethos will allow them to consider it as something else.
If media, fans, and the broader soccer world see the fourth round of Open Cup as something conflicted, so be it. Those on the field will have at least 90 minutes of work to do.
Win tonight, and one group will get a chance at their Open Cup reassessment, having to deal with the quick turnaround that goes with it. The Round of 16 moves you one step closer to a trophy and a chance at Concacaf Champions League soccer, but it also means, with MLS’ return on the horizon, you have another game (and potential travel) seven days from now.
Lose tonight, and … well, that’s where the true nature of Open Cup comes out. Because as much as we talk about the tradeoffs that come with competing in the tournament, when game day comes, nobody wants to lose.
Here are three areas of focus for the Timbers’ Wednesday derby with the Sounders (7:30pm PT, ESPN+), this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report.
Who gets a shot
It’s hard to remember now, but at this point last year, there was still a lot of mystery around the talent who had been brought in to revitalize Timbers 2. Even some of the holdovers we’d seen at that level in prior years, players like Kendall McIntosh and Bill Tuiloma, had faded from focus as questions around the first months under Giovanni Savarese were explored. When the Timbers started Open Cup in round four against the San Jose Earthquakes, it was the first chance for players like Marvin Loría, Renzo Zambrano, Eryk Williamson and Modou Jadama to enter 2018’s conversation.
Will the same hold this season? In 2019, the picture is a little more complex. The break MLS has taken for Gold Cup means most first-team players could go three weeks without action if they don’t see the field in Tacoma. Yet from an information perspective, tonight’s match at Cheney Stadium may be this season’s best opportunity to see how players like Foster Langsdorf (to select somebody who didn’t get mentioned, above) will perform under first-team demands for a full match.
Is that information more valuable than giving players like Diego Valeri and Diego Chara another match? Maybe those are bad examples, because those two would be perfectly capable of staying ready over a three-week halt. But what about somebody like Julio Cascante, who may be pressed into the Timbers’ starting lineup when MLS returns? What about getting more reps for somebody like Cristhian Paredes, who is still young enough where regular minutes matter? There are a series of small considerations which make tonight’s selection more complicated, beyond the surface.
For Savarese and his staff, though, the choices aren’t likely to be complicated at all. They will have planned out their route to tonight’s kickoff weeks in advance, knowing who would be getting time off this week and who would be tasked with getting the Timbers into another round. The decisions may have been difficult then, when those courses were being plotted, but long before Wednesday’s game in Tacoma, Portland will have decided how they want to approach this year’s Open Cup.
Does Sebastián Blanco play?
Blanco’s case is slightly different. Having picked up a yellow card on June 1 against Los Angeles FC, the Timbers’ winger is suspended for Portland’s June 22 MLS return against Houston. Five yellow cards will do that to you. There’s only a three-game gap between that game against the Dynamo and the Timbers’ next match, on June 26 in Montreal, but for some, that gap could be enough to sway a decision.
There are factors beyond the layoff to consider, too. Giving other players, players who aren’t getting MLS minutes, might be one of them. Another is the larger picture, as far as 2019 is concerned. Blanco hasn’t typically been a player whose minutes have had to be managed, but he’s entering a point of his career where those things may become a consideration. Is one 90-minute stretch of play worth changing plans, in light of a pending suspension, when Blanco may be asked to play back-to-back, short-turnaround games on his return?
Who knows? We certainly don’t, but beyond the coaches’ offices and the practice fields, these are things that become important when figuring out who is and is not likely to face Seattle. Sounders coaches will be thinking about these things, too.
The route to Champions League
Beyond the prestige of winning a historic competition, the promise of Open Cup is in its gateway to something more. For MLS teams, the moment they enter the competition, they’re five games from Concacaf soccer, and from one perspective, that’s an easier route than a 38-, 39-game path through the regular season.
It certainly was that way for last year’s champion. The Houston Dynamo didn’t even make MLS’ playoffs, but thanks to their form in Open Cup, they were able enjoy Champions League this winter. In reality, last year’s ninth-place finish in the Western Conference understated the Dynamo’s quality (they had an even goal difference, and they’ve been one of the league’s best teams this season), but thanks to Open Cup, the league’s standings didn’t have to be 2018’s be-all, end-all.
It will be a few more rounds before teams will know if they can be this year’s Dynamo. At this stage of the competition, MLS sides have started to take a wait-and-see look. But as decisions have to be made about who gets minutes in these early rounds, Houston’s Open Cup run should be kept in mind. The small, “let’s go for it” choice made this week could, come late-August’s final, have a huge payoff.