11:15 am May. 30, 2012
The U.S. Open Cup suffers from a respect problem.
The tournament is supposed to be the American equivalent of England's FA Cup, and has been around for nearly a century, which is hard to believe given both domestic soccer's transient history and the obscurity of the tournament itself. It is theoretically, like the FA Cup, open to all teams at all levels. The winner earns the right to participate in the CONCACAF Champions League, which is supposed to be North America's equivalent to the UEFA Champions League.
The Red Bulls, a team that could really use a trophy, seemed to go into the tournament last year with the goal of not spending any more energy than necessary. They fielded a skeletal team, coached by assistant Mike Petke, and duly fell to the Chicago Fire, 4-0.
The resulting fan anger, and perhaps the simple realization that ignoring a perfectly viable path to a trophy makes no sense, changed the team's approach this year.
In the 3-0 Tuesday night victory over the Charleston Battery, New York put most of its regulars in the starting lineup. Though Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez didn't play due to injuries, players like Kenny Cooper and Heath Pearce did play, and each scored a goal. Even Wilman Conde, who has missed much of the season due to injuries, returned and played the full 90 minutes.
It looked like the next step for the Red Bulls would be to host the New England Revolution next Tuesday at Red Bull Arena. When the Red Bulls' game was over, the Revolution was leading third-division Harrisburg City Islanders 3-0 with almost no time left.
But then Harrisburg battled back, scored three goals to force penalty kicks, and won when U.S. international Benny Feilhaber missed his attempt.
Here's where we'd show you that epic moment, along with highlights from the match. But see how there's no link?
That's because the Open Cup has no television-rights holder. Not Fox Soccer, not ESPN, not NBC Sports. So one of the great comebacks in United States soccer history, a match that could have galvanized people to watch the Open Cup, was seen by ... pretty much no one. The Red Bulls match was at least streamed online. To follow the New England-Harrisburg action, fans needed to listen to an audio feed.
Harrisburg, for its victory, earned the right to host New York June 5.
The game of soccer has come a long way in this country. But the oldest tournament can hardly gain a following if no one can see it.