LOS ANGELES — Ask anyone around Major League Soccer what they think about the U.S. Open Cup and you’ll receive a mixed reaction.
Some coaches undermine the tournament while others see it as an opportunity. Commissioner Don Garber recently just said it was a poor reflection of what the United States is trying to do with soccer at the highest level. The competition, which is organized by U.S. Soccer, pits MLS teams against lower-tier pro and amateur teams.
It’s quite the conundrum, but the facts are these: the winner raises a trophy and gets a spot in CONCACAF Champions League.
Tuesday night, LAFC hosted rival LA Galaxy in an Open Cup version of El Trafico, perhaps the least anticipated of them all ever since they faced off in empty stadiums during the pandemic season. When the lineups were announced prior to the game, it was evident how each side was approaching the matchup. LAFC, defending MLS Cup champs and Supporters’ Shield winners, went with a squad full of prospects from their MLS NEXT Pro team. Some of their usual starters were watching from suites at the stadium, others probably at home.
To Steve Cherundolo, this tournament in the current moment doesn’t matter. They have bigger fish to fry as LAFC shifts focus toward traveling to Mexico to take on Club Leon on May 31 in the first leg of the CCL final.
For the Galaxy, the starting XI was somewhat rotated, but featured enough starters that it was a must-win game for them. They took care of business, pulling off the 2-0 victory thanks to stunning goals from Tyler Boyd and Riqui Puig.
To Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney, this tournament in the current moment should matter … a lot.
The start of the MLS season has been a disaster for the Galaxy, who sit in last place of the West. Results and goals have been hard to find, especially on the road. Despite the match only being a few miles up the freeway, this was an away game. Sure, it was against a group of players they probably should’ve scored a few more on. And yes, there are perhaps more negatives than positives about their performance when you really sit down and assess how it unfolded. Goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann came up clutch a few times to keep the clean sheet or else we might be having a completely different discussion.
But at the end of the day what matters for the Galaxy is beating LAFC and advancing to the quarterfinals of the tournament, where they will visit Real Salt Lake on June 7.
“It’s a hard place to play. They don’t lose many games here,” Vanney said after the win. “It doesn’t matter who is on the other side. It doesn’t matter who is playing. Anything. These types of games are always difficult. And, tonight, I’m proud of our guys.”
At this point, with so much turmoil around the Galaxy, any victory is valued. They’re still trying to establish a mentality and build some cohesion as they try to dig themselves out of multiple holes. The only way that happens is winning.
The main objective is racking up points in league play to reach a playoff spot, but there’s still a lot of time left in that calendar. If we’re talking priorities, Open Cup should now certainly be one. Amid all the drama this year, the Galaxy are three wins away from a trophy.
They have little room for error, and making a run at a Cup so many others glance over should alleviate a bit of tension.
“It’s a trophy nonetheless,” Puig said when asked about the often-criticized dynamic of the tournament. “It depends how you want to face it, [LAFC] faced it one way and we played it like another final. And we won tonight. I think we deserve it and I am very happy to win my first El Trafico derby.”
The Galaxy, however, were in this same position last year and ended up being eliminated at home in the quarterfinals by USL side Sacramento Republic. Vanney and Co. seem to have learned from that experience. We’ll find out definitively in a few weeks. But if they were to win and advance, the semifinals aren’t until late August due to this year’s new Leagues Cup format that will take over the summer schedule.
“It doesn’t matter what the trophy is. It’s always a legacy for a group,” Vanney said. “All of these games matter because there’s emotion on them and there’s something you’re playing for each time.”
The more the Galaxy win or lose will dictate the convoluted outlook. For now, they can relish in a win over their rivals that they hope can translate into something even bigger.
“It does give us a lift, but the foot can’t come off the pedal,” said Boyd. “We have to keep pushing. This just needs to be a little boost in the right direction and we really need to work hard, stick together and create momentum.”