Wednesday, June 14, 2017

USOC: Why This Matters

Columbus Crew SC is traveling down I-71 to take on FC Cincinnati today for the fourth round of the US Open Cup. It's a match no short of reaction gifs and social media banter for sure, but there is more to it than that. Much more.

Following the template of Orlando City, FC Cincinnati (FCC) has burst onto the soccer scene with large crowds which have garnished the attention of Don Garber via talk of expansion. Because there is no way to earn your way in the top level of competition in the United States (and Canada!), FCC has to check off boxes like city size, demographics, stadium plans, ability to pay franchise fees and, of course, bring in good crowds.

Having just about all of those things, brand new FCC is now presented with an opportunity to play a competitive match against old and crusty Crew SC.

In contrast to FCC, Columbus is coming at this as a team that has been through all the battles of trying to survive. They were awarded an MLS franchise, they had the big crowds in the late '90s, they built the stadium. In the time between then and now, they've lived the lean times and faced down the challenges of an ever-changing league.

Imagine a different universe, if you will, where Cincinnati was selected as an original MLS city back in 1994 and Columbus just started in the USL. Things would be very similar, just reversed. FCC MLS would have burst onto the scene and made their way for 20 years and Columbus would be the young, hot and desirable city bidding for an MLS franchise.

What Columbus and Cincinnati are playing for tonight couldn't differ more. A win or loss on the pitch for FCC doesn't matter as much as the attention it will get for filling the stands and furthering their plan to become an MLS team. They will have the crowd so, in that regard, it is a win for them.

For Crew SC it is a bit more tricky. A win and they get to advance in a tournament that they clearly don't have much interest in. But a loss. A loss puts Gregg Berhalter in a position where he must have a good showing when he faces Atlanta United in MLS play this weekend.

Why? Columbus has been slipping in the standings all year. Their recent form of 6 - 10 games puts them firmly below the playoff line and looking too much like last year. If. IF. Berhalter loses this game tonight and has a poor showing against Atlanta, a game he is saving most of his regulars for, then his seat becomes very warm. Looking further down the road, missing the playoffs would lead to changes in coaching.

There is another dynamic to this game that most are missing. It is two teams facing each other that are not sisters. MLS is controlled centrally. Meaning: when teams face each other, they are playing fellow employees. FCC is separate from that (for now), so what we have is a rarity for soccer in the United States. Two teams independent of each other, facing off in a game that matters. It feels different because it is different.

It's an actual competitive match.

I'll be watching because of that.

No comments: