Orlando City Head Coach Adrian Heath has repeatedly talked about how he'll take the U.S. Open Cup seriously and play to win the tournament. But playing to win a tournament often means using key players which, as we've seen this season, can be hazardous.
There are advantages to success in the U.S. Open Cup. The most notable is entrance into the CONCACAF Champions League. Apart from competing at the highest level in the region, the Champions League also gives clubs an additional outlet to grow their brand internationally.
But what cost will a coach pay to see his team have success in this prestigious tournament?
While victory in the country's oldest soccer competition is enticing, the top goal for each club is still the league title. As the years have gone by and MLS has grown more mature, the importance of the league over the cup has continued to become clearer.
The biggest concerns for many MLS coaches is not that their team will be knocked out of the competition, but that fatigue or injury will occur in what they consider a minor event. That's why LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena routinely takes a Galaxy reserve team to Open Cup matches, especially those away from the StubHub Center.
Tuesday night, the Seattle Sounders faced the Portland Timbers in the marquee matchup of the fourth round. Rather than going the route of Arena's Galaxy, Sounders boss Sigi Schmid displayed a team that featured Obafemi Martins in the starting lineup and Clint Dempsey on the bench.
Late in the second half, Martins went for a challenge on Portland's Darlington Nagbe. As the star striker rolled over, pain was expressed on his face. Almost immediately, Sounders players began calling for the trainer.
Orlando City has had a similar situation this season. Early in the team's friendly against Brazilian side Ponte Preta in May, star midfielder Kevin Molino went down with what later was revealed to be a torn ACL. Molino's injury will cause him to miss the remainder of the season.
While the U.S. Open Cup is certainly more important than a friendly, these incidents show why many coaches are so hesitant to play their key starters during matches deemed less important than league games. Losing a player like Martins for Seattle, or Molino for Orlando, could cost teams dearly as they fight for the playoffs and beyond.
Heath is certainly aware of these risks, which was proven by his selections Wednesday night. Playing away in South Carolina against the USL's Charleston Battery, Heath decided to enter the U.S. Open Cup with caution rather than playing his best team. Of the usual starting lineup for Orlando City, only left back Luke Boden and right sided midfielder Eric Avila started. The Lions' most important player, Kaká, didn't even make the trip to South Carolina.
While the U.S. Open Cup is a great tournament with a long history in this country, it's still likely seen as less important than the league title by every team. So while you don't want to see MLS teams playing what essentially amount to youth teams in the early rounds of the tournament, you certainly can understand their hesitation to play key players. Even Heath, who has repeatedly stated his intention to win the U.S. Open Cup, is aware of the danger and is acting accordingly.