By James Nalton.
Initial excitement around the start of the 2023 Major League Soccer season has now settled into run-of-the-mill regular season games, as 29 teams look to at least take one of the 18 available post-season spots.
Amid this lull, the US Open Cup, which all MLS teams have now entered, offers some meaningful soccer with something at stake. This is one of the reasons New York City FC should be looking to take the competition seriously as they kick off their cup campaign against FC Cincinnati this week.
MLS’s new TV deal with Apple and the introduction of a team from St. Louis led to some early-season excitement in the league, but the number of teams able to qualify for the post-season means there is not much at stake early on unless it looks like your team might put together a run good enough to challenge for the Supporters’ Shield.
And a challenge for the Supporters’ Shield is certainly something New York City should be aiming for. The high expectations at the club and from its supporters mean the goal should be something more than simply playoff qualification. The club should be challenging for trophies (or shields), and this is why winning the Open Cup should also be one of the aims.
— Hudson River Blue (@hudsonriverblue) May 8, 2023
As the regular season rumbles on in the background, there is always the possibility form can swing. Losing teams become winning ones while early pace-setters can fall back and, as a result, the table can take many different forms throughout the season.
A run of wins can take a team from midtable strugglers to Supporters’ Shield challengers in a matter of weeks.
NYCFC has been poor in recent road games, and generally inconsistent throughout the early part of 2023, but remains just a three-win swing away from the summit of the overall table.
On top of this, head coach Nick Cushing is currently trying to embed a new system with Santi Rodriguez as a false nine.
Rotation within the rest of the squad, while it could be justified, hasn’t really helped with this, and some stability within the XI during this period might have been the better approach.
What the US Open Cup offers is a chance to continue to work on and test this system in an environment that is currently more competitive and has more at stake than recent regular season matches. There is always an opportunity to recover in the league, but lose in the Open Cup, and you’re out. It is a better test for post-season, playoff soccer than any regular season game.
Rather than be seen as a distraction, the Open Cup should be seen as a real, true test of how prepared a team is to win trophies. And not only is it a chance to continue fine-tuning tactics, getting players used to their assignments, and a chance to actually win a trophy, but it also offers qualification for the Concacaf Champions League.
The US Open Cup is much more meaningful and has much more riding on it than the surrounding MLS regular season games. There is also no reason why they can’t work in tandem.
NYCFC also has some local tradition to uphold, too. Some New York soccer heritage. The city of New York is the most successful in US Open Cup history, with 25 wins to its name. Add the Rochester Rhinos’ historic 1999 win — the last non-MLS team to claim the trophy, defeating Colorado Rapids in the final — and the state of New York has 26 Open Cup wins, more than any other state.
Soccer teams from New York City (Cosmos, Sky Blue, NYCFC, numerous US Open Cup winners) have won national championships on 32 occasions. More than hockey, basketball, and (American) football combined. Soccer is NYC’s most successful sport alongside baseball.
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) April 19, 2023
But despite the city’s history of success in the Open Cup, neither of the MLS teams with New York in their name has ever won it. NYCFC should be aiming to change this.
The US Open Cup is one of just three pieces of domestic silverware on offer to an MLS team in any given season and is the only truly national championship. New York City FC owes it to itself, its fans, and to the city to take this competition seriously.