If you're a casual sports fan in Kansas City (or even if you're a more than casual fan), chances are all this talk of the "U.S. Open Cup" or "cup final" or "Lamar Hunt Cup" has got you wondering: What in the heck is this? Is it important? Is it more important than a regular season match? Or even: Why is there a tournament in the middle of a season?
The Kansas City Star
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What is it? Yesterday, my colleague Tod Palmer laid out a pretty informative piece on the history of the U.S. Open Cup -- the oldest continuously running soccer tournament in the world! You should go read up on that. It's got great history and context. (And it uses the same photo I used for this blog. (We don't have a whole lot from that night on file here at The Star.)
Is it important? A few weeks ago, I blogged about what the Open Cup Final could mean for a city that's suffering through a championship drought. You should go back and read that.
Is it more important than a regular season match? Yes. Any time a trophy is on the line, it's more important than a regular season match. I think baseball would be a thousand times better if they gave out more trophies and/or had mid-season mini-tournaments that gave out trophies. You wouldn't want to see the Royals win the Missouri Cup (a best-of-seven series with the Cardinals)? Or the Midwest Cup (a 6-team elimination tournament with Minnesota, the White Sox, Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers, Detroit and Kansas City?) I would.
Why is there a tournament in the middle of the season? In order to make up for a lack of scoring in normal matches, the governing bodies of soccer federations instead added mid-season tournaments to keep fans interested.*
*Okay. I made that last answer up. The real answer: Don't ask why. Just enjoy a chance to watch a championship game in Kansas City when the weather is relatively nice! The MLS Cup, if it happens to land in Kansas City, will be played on December 1.
But, if we haven't answered all of your questions or made it clear enough quite yet, here's a quick synopsis.
The U.S. Open Final is a chance for Sporting Kansas City to ...
hoist a championship trophy for Kansas City for the first time since 2004;
host a major championship in Kansas City for the first time since 2004;
bring home a trophy named after the franchise's first owner, Lamar Hunt;
give Livestrong Sporting Park its first coat of new paint on the Championship Wall;
reward the local ownership group with their first major piece of silverware since buying the team in 2006;
end a three-year run of Open Cup titles for the Seattle Sounders (this is a big deal as Seattle joined the league in 2009 and has been very successful in building its team and its rabid fanbase;
join the big-boys table in Major League Soccer (i.e. teams who have won the MLS Cup, Open Cup or Supporter's Shield in the post-expansion modern era);
qualify for a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League next year.
Let's explain out that last one a little bit. It might trip up some fans.
The CONCACAF Champions League is a cousin of the UEFA Champions League. (That's the tournament that you see on Fox featuring the best teams from Europe like Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Manchester United, et al. Chelsea won it last season beating Bayern Munich.)
The idea behind a "champions league" is to pit the best teams from a region against each other for a season-long tournament to determine the "best" team in that region. Also: Make more money.
The CONCACAF (it's an acronym you don't really need to understand, it basically means North and Central America and the Caribbean) version pits 24 teams from the U.S.A, Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and the like. The 24 teams compete in a group stage (facing each team home-and-away) and a two-leg (home-and-away) knockout round.
Mexico and the United States send four teams; Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama send two; Canada, Belize and Nicaragua send one; and three teams come from a Caribbean qualifying tournament.
There are four ways for a U.S. team to qualify for this: Reach the MLS Cup (winner and loser qualify), win the Open Cup or the Supporter's Shield (best regular season team).
As you might expect, Mexican teams dominate this competition. The last seven winners have come from south of the border. The only MLS team to appear in the finals the last decade has been Real Salt Lake in 2010-11.
"OK," you might be saying to yourself, "so what?"
The CONCACAF Champions League means A) high-profile games, B) more big-name opponents potentially playing at Livestrong Sporting Park, C) continental exposure, D) a chance to show off Livestrong Sporting Park to foreign players who might want to play in MLS someday, E) a higher profile in MLS, and F) more money.*
*I'm assuming that more games + bigger opponents = $$$. That might just be an assumption though.
In franchise history, Kansas City have made two appearances in the Champions Cup, reaching the semifinals in 2002 and the quarterfinals in 2005.
But there's a further prize beyond just competing and earning pride/respect/exposure/money. The champion of this competition is invited to the Club World Cup, pitting only the winners of the six football federations against each other. (That's Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, North/Central America and Oceania.)
In other words, the only way for Kansas City to face Chelsea/Barcelona/Milan in a non-friendly match would be to win the CONCACAF Champions League.
I'm pretty sure that would mean more money/exposure too.