"We took 40 shots! Forty!"
In case you haven't been paying attention, the Red Bulls were one of the few MLS teams to come away with a win in the U.S. Open Cup's fourth round. The list of MLS casualties is high. The New England Revolution had seemingly put away the USL Harrisburg City Islanders with three extra time goals, only for the Central Pennsylvania side to come back, tie it up and win in penalty kicks. Eric Wynalda's Cal FC made everything right in the world with an extra time goal that saw them past the Portland Timbers.
The Dayton Dutch Lions knocked out the Columbus Crew. The Chicago Fire crashed out against the Michigan Bucks. The San Antonio Scorpions moved on at the expense of the Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas was shut out by the Charlotte Eagles. Real Salt Lake, who following the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers, bought home field advantage, got beat 3-1 at home at the hands of the Minnesota Stars. And, finally, the LA Galaxy got beat by the NASL Carolina Railhawks.
So if Hans Backe was planning on taking this year's Open Cup seriously to avoid embarrassment, he probably picked the wrong year. The Red Bulls would likely be lost in the shuffle if the went down to Charleston and lost. But they didn't. And the Red Bulls are still alive among a mix of MLS, second and third division teams.
Exactly what makes the Open Cup great is you can get a match-up -- like the Timbers-Cal FC one last night -- where a group of hungry amateurs (or low-level professionals), ready to rip your eyes out to prove themselves, take it to a bunch of MLSers. Cal FC is a veritable island of misfit toys, seemingly put together at the behest of Wynalda for the sole purpose of destroying whatever semblance of predictability onlookers thought this tournament had while sticking it to whatever vague "establishment" Wynalda might fashion himself as a rebel against.
And with the absence of promotion and relegation, this is the sole opportunity for NASL and USL to test their mettle against the kind of guys being immortalized in Adidas commercials. Add to that the rules on gate receipts the Cup places on teams and possibility for on-field glory combined with the kind of financial windfall that keeps minor league teams alive and the competitive juices are flowing for the minor league guys.
If there's one thing the NASL, the USL and Cal FC have in abundance is the sort of intangibles that sportswriters love to gush about and fall into the tried-and-true "will vs. skill" trope everybody loves. This ignores that these guys, even as lower tier pros and amateurs, are immensely skilled players, but when you see a guy wearing the crest of a team who cut you, the chip-on-the-shoulder factor is massive and these teams are going to keep proving how thin MLS is talent-wise.
So until that mythical day that may never come -- sort of like the day when soccer "makes it" -- when the Open Cup is esteemed in the way the FA Cup or the Copa Del Rey are, we'll keep see the little guys sticking it to the big buys.