LOS ANGELES — Ask anyone around Major League Soccer what they think about the US Open Cup and you’ll get mixed responses.
Some coaches look down upon the tournament while others see it as an opportunity. Commissioner Don Garber recently 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 US Soccer, pits MLS teams against lower-level pro and amateur teams.
It’s quite the conundrum, but the facts are: The winner lifts a trophy and earns a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Tuesday night LAFC hosted rival LA Galaxy in an Open Cup edition of El Trafico, perhaps the least anticipated of them all since they faced empty stadiums during the pandemic season. When the lineups were announced before the game, it was clear 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 early starts were watching from suites in the stadium, others probably at home.
For Steve Cherundolo, this tournament doesn’t matter at the moment. They have bigger fish to fry as LAFC’s focus turns to Mexico next Wednesday, May 31 to take on Club León in the first leg of the CCL Finals.
For the Galaxy, the starting XI was rotated somewhat, but there were enough starts that it was a must-win game for them. They took care of business, securing a 2–0 victory thanks to surprise goals from Tyler Boyd and Rikki Puig.
For Greg Vanni, this tournament in the present moment matters … a lot.
The start of the MLS season has been a disaster for the Galaxy, who finish in last place in the West. Finding results and goals has been difficult, especially on the road. Despite the match being only a few miles from the freeway, it was an away game. Sure, it was against a bunch of players, he probably should have scored a few more runs. And yes, when you really sit down and assess how it unfolded, there are probably more negatives than positives about his performance. Goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann came over clutch a few times to keep a clean sheet or else we could have a completely different discussion.
But at the end of the day, what matters to the Galaxy is defeating LAFC and advancing to the quarterfinals of the tournament, where they will travel to either Colorado or Salt Lake in the first week of June.
“It’s a tough place to play. They don’t lose too many games here,” Vanni said after the win. “It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side. It doesn’t matter who’s playing. Anything. These types of games are always tough. And, tonight, I’m proud of my players.”
At this point, with so much turmoil around the Galaxy, any victory counts. They are still trying to establish a mindset and create some cohesion as they try to dig themselves out of several holes. The only way for that to happen is to win.
The main objective is to collect points in league play to reach a playoff spot, but there is still plenty of time left in that calendar. If we are talking about priorities, then the Open Cup is definitely a must have now. Amidst all the drama this year, the Galaxy are three wins away from a trophy.
They have little room for error, and scoring a run in a cup in the eyes of so many others can ease some of the tension.
When asked about the often-criticized dynamic of the tournament, Puig said, “Nevertheless it is a trophy.” “Depends how you want to approach it, (LAFC) approached 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 Traffico derby.
However, the Galaxy were in the same position last year and were eliminated at home in the quarterfinals by USL side Sacramento Republic. It looks like Vanni & Co. has learned from that experience. We’ll find out for sure in a few weeks. But if they are to win and progress, the semi-finals will not take place until the end of August this year due to the new Leagues Cup format taking over the summer schedule.
“It doesn’t matter what the trophy is. It’s always a legacy for a group,” Vanni said. “All these games matter because they have emotion and are something that you are playing every time.”
The more the Galaxy will win or lose, this complex approach will decide. For now, they can enjoy the victory over their rivals and hope that it can turn into something bigger.
“It gives us lift, but the foot can’t come off the pedal,” Boyd said. “We have to keep pushing. It needs a little push in the right direction and we need to work really hard, stick together and build momentum.