Each year, every MLS team takes part in two competitions — the regular season and the U.S. Open Cup. Some teams use the Open Cup to provide experience for younger players with no intention of winning the tournament. Other teams attempt to bring home the silverware. Some begin the tournament with younger players and add in regular starters deeper in the competition. With a new coaching staff this season, the MLS is Back Tournament may provide fans a glimpse of how Orlando City will view the Open Cup in the near future.
Similar to other domestic cup competitions around the world, the U.S. Open Cup winner advances to a continental cup competition. In MLS, that means advancing to the Concacaf Champions League. However, the Concacaf Champions League isn’t viewed in the same light as the UEFA Champions League or Copa Libertadores. While some clubs want to reach that level, others only care about league success.
Orlando City has been on both sides of the coin when it comes to caring about the Open Cup. Adrian Heath felt that the Open Cup is very important and always tries to win it. James O’Connor, who played for Heath at Orlando City from 2012 to 2014, felt the same way. Splitting those coaches was Jason Kreis, who took a more split approach to cup competition.
The bright spot from the 2019 season was Orlando City’s run to the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. It provided one of the most exciting moments in club history, the advancement after penalties following a draw with New York City FC in the quarterfinal. But while many fans enjoyed the run, the extra games could’ve had an impact on league form.
The MLS is Back Tournament was split into two stages. The group stage counted as points for the regular season. Should the season continue after the tournament, those points could be crucial for a playoff spot. The knockout stages don’t count toward league points and that’s where you’ll learn about how new coaches feel about the Open Cup.
While everyone would like to win the MLS is Back Tournament, there are other things that are beneficial. One of those is getting experience for young players who might not have played in the group games that counted toward the league standings. League games might be viewed as too important to play such young players. Knockout stage games that don’t factor in the regular season standings are a good opportunity if you’re not as concerned about qualifying for the Champions League.
It’s difficult to tell how Orlando City will view the Open Cup based on their round of 16 win over the Montreal Impact. While it gave two rookies, Daryl Dike and Joey DeZart, their MLS debuts, they were just for a few minutes near the end of the game. Other young players, like Jordan Bender and David Loera, haven’t appeared in the tournament.
Orlando City will take the field next on July 31 in the quarterfinals of the tournament. The Lions are reaching the stages where they could legitimately win the tournament and reach the Champions League. How the team takes the field in those coming games will tell a lot about how the club will treat the U.S. Open Cup in the coming years. It will tell if fans will experience the exhilaration of the 2019 cup run or the disappointments of losing to lower league teams in 2016 and 2017. It appears as though it might be the former but the truth is yet to come.