The response emerged quickly from Sporting Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber, a relevant detail because it perhaps best relayed his conviction. As he stood on the edge of the practice field Tuesday, he answered questions regarding a stretch of three home matches over the next eight days.
Might there be one home match he’s anticipating with the most enthusiasm?
“This one,” he said. “For sure.”
On Wednesday evening, Sporting KC will play host to its biggest rival — Real Salt Lake — in the semifinals of a 91-team knockout tournament that includes clubs from Major League Soccer, the United Soccer League and the North American Soccer League. In essence, Sporting KC is two victories away from winning a U.S. Open Cup championship that awards a $250,000 prize and a coveted berth into the CONCACAF Champions League.
But it won’t be on TV.
And it’s unlikely to draw a sellout inside a venue that has been filled to capacity for the the past 64 MLS matches.
A sport that has welcomed dramatic domestic growth in recent years — and two more MLS expansion teams in 2015 — is waiting for the country’s oldest soccer tournament to follow suit.
“I can’t speak for everybody else, but it’s a huge competition, especially when you have all the different divisions vying for the opportunity to play against a team in MLS,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “It’s an incredible competition from that perspective, because it doesn’t exist in other sports in this country.”
And maybe therein lies the disconnect.
At least outside the locker rooms.
The tournament is indeed unlike any other offered across the four major sports in America, and it forces teams to toggle between two different competitions simultaneously. There is a layer of education necessary with the average fan. Couple that with the absence of TV coverage, and some have opted to ignore it.
“I think that all plays a part in it,” Feilhaber said. “But I know we take it very seriously.”
Sporting KC will broadcast Wednesday’s semifinal on the YouTube channel for U.S. Soccer, which owns the broadcast and commercial rights for all Open Cup matches. If Sporting KC wanted to show the game on TV, it would be required to pay a fee to secure the rights to air it, but U.S. Soccer would retain sponsorship rights.
“If there is your normal cost to broadcast a game and there’s an added cost to have the rights to the game and you have no opportunity to recover any of those costs, then basically it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us,” said Chris Wyche, vice president of operations for Sporting KC.
Instead, a large block of fans won’t be watching a match that some players claim to be taking more seriously than an MLS regular-season game.
Real Salt Lake defender Tony Beltran told The Salt Lake Tribune it was “absolutely” his team’s most important game of the season.
And if you don’t believe their words, trust their actions.
Real Salt Lake rested five starters in Saturday’s 4-0 loss in Vancouver, with an eye on Wednesday’s Open Cup semifinal at Sporting Park.
“After a victory on Wednesday, it’s going to look really good,” RSL coach Jeff Cassar told The Tribune.
While Sporting KC hasn’t necessarily gone to the extreme of resting players in preparation for the tournament, Vermes similarly has put out first-rate lineups in three Open Cup matches this summer.
Even on three days rest, Sporting KC will use its best options Wednesday, though winger Graham Zusi (calf) and midfielder Paulo Nagamura (ankle) will be game-time decisions.
Sporting KC is seeking its third Open Cup championship after winning in 2004 and 2012.
“We’re still going to try to put the best team out on the field that we possibly can,” Vermes said. “Of course the competition means a lot to us. We’ve won it twice in the past as a club. We want to win it again. That’s why we’re here.”