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After MLS attempted to pull out of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, things may be coming to a resolution as the 2024 edition of the cup will happen but with only eight MLS teams taking part, according to multiple reports. Running since the 1913-14 season, the U.S. Open Cup is the longest-running soccer tournament in American soccer with any club sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation being able to take part in it. This modification would change the tournament as we know it. 

Citing match congestion, in December of 2023, MLS expressed a desire to remove teams from the tournament replacing them with teams from MLS Next Pro. That proposal was rejected, leaving us with no resolution for what the future of the Open Cup would be. According to the Athletic, the USL has notified the U.S. Soccer that all 47 clubs that qualified for the Open Cup will participate which does pave the way for the tournament to continue in some form this season. 

The Open Cup committee chairman, Arthur Mattson, has resigned from his position but it seems like the previous expectation that the Open Cup wouldn't happen may have been averted.

That doesn't erase concerns about how Major League Soccer has taken control of the tournament but it is still the best financial decision for USL clubs especially with there being a better chance of a lower-division side winning the tournament for the first time since the Rochester Rhinos in 1999. MLS sides have now won 20 consecutive tournaments with Sacramento Republic being the last non-MLS team to make the final against Orlando City in 2021-22.

Why is MLS against full participation?

MLS commissioner Don Garber has been open in his displeasure with the tournament as a whole citing travel and scheduling issues. Due to the salary cap in the league, it can be hard for MLS teams to put together a roster that can compete on multiple fronts leading to younger players likely taking the pitch during the earlier rounds of the open cup. Those scheduling issues are created by the league and not Open Cup obligations, however. Revamping the Leagues Cup with Liga MX has now created a higher-paying tournament that will take place each summer adding numerous games to each team's schedule while the MLS Cup Playoffs have also expanded with the inclusion of a best-of-three first round for teams that make it that far. 

It makes sense as to why MLS has looked to monetize these tournaments as best that they can while also being set to welcome a 30th team to the league next season but it has made the Open Cup more of a nuisance to Garber than a piece of history that needs to be protected. As the voice of the owners, it's not Garber's job to protect the Open Cup but a middle ground needs to be found as even USL sides struggle with the travel commitment of the tournament and extra matches on their schedule. The addition of Lionel Messi to the league has only created bigger questions about monetization and match congestion bringing everything to a head all at once. 

What's next

To be a division one league, MLS is required to participate in the U.S. Open Cup if it exists, hence the need for a compromise as the Open Cup happening without MLS teams creates a tricky situation as they wouldn't be in compliance with USSF rules. According to Yahoo!, it's unknown exactly what the Open Cup will look like this season but the plan is for the tournament to go ahead which led to statements from USL sides confirming their commitment to protecting the 105-year-old tournament. For limited participation to work, there would need to be some bending of the rules but it's easier to pass off a tournament with some teams competing than none.

It was revealed that U.S. Soccer has committed to investing more into the tournament to cover more travel costs and a 60/40 revenue split where the home team keeps 60% of revenue with the remainder going toward Open Cup operations, according to Yahoo! But that still wasn't enough for MLS to commit to the tournament despite it already being underway as qualifying rounds began in September.

The first round is set to begin on March 19 meaning that there isn't much time to figure out participation and scheduling changes but the expectation is as follows, according to the report. 

  • Teams who qualified for Concacaf Champions Cup, except the reigning U.S. Open Cup champions, the Houston Dynamo, won't participate in Open Cup play. Those teams are; Inter Miami, Philadephia Union, New England Revolution, Orlando City SC, St. Louis City SC, Vancouver Whitecaps, FC Cincinnati and Nashville SC.
  • Additional teams based on where they finished in the table, also won't participate.
  • The remaining teams would send their reserve teams to the tournament.

Preliminary plans have been approved by a subcommittee of the U.S. Soccer Federation board of directors but there are still plenty of details to finalize before the Open Cup returns.

The future of the Cup is still murky and the inclusion of MLS reserve teams does cheapen the competition in some ways but keeping history alive, even in an altered state, is important as soccer in America moves forward. This year is an important time as while it's Messi's first full season in the MLS, eyes will be on U.S. Soccer with America hosting the Copa America this year and the World Cup in 2026.