Houston's Loss, LA's Loss: The Meaning of Top-Flight

While most the attention seems to be going to the LA Galaxy crashing out by the head of the Richmond Kickers’ David Bulow, Houston’s loss to the Charleston Battery strikes me as the bigger news. Maybe it’s, as Fox Soccer put it (in a great headline), Richmond’s “third-tier” status versus the Galaxy’s oxygen-sucking hype - but, against that, you have things like LA’s loss to a ten-man Columbus to make sense of these things. Houston could point to their second-string line-up, but that’s kind of a bullshit excuse...your either top-flight or you’re not. So, Tuesday, July 10 was a pretty good night for America’s lower division clubs - they almost got New England as well. And pretty good for the Open Cup But it points to the familiar problem of MLS trying to maintain top-flight league’s status and schedule on second-tier budgets.

In that context, LA’s loss to Richmond plays a little against type. For starters, I think LA actually did want to win this one: I can’t see why else they’d risk starters, for even half the game, if they wanted to throw it away - and that applies, even if half the team might be quietly smiling about a couple days off down the road. But Landon Donovan called out his team using words he didn’t have to - go get ‘em, you thinning wonder - which either suggests disappoint or it merely reinforces the sense that LA needs positives badly enough that they’ll take anything. It’s been said plenty of times that LA is working their players with all the tenderness of a pimp and last night’s game only served as the latest example; a half a game here or there isn’t going to save their top players much with exhibitions filling in every possible gap left in an already-stuffed schedule.

Turning now to Houston, I had a hell of a time finding the starting line-ups - at least while I was looking - but everyone makes clear that Houston’s best got a breather in this one. The game still sounded like a good one - especially for both ‘keepers - and the hundreds of Charleston fans went home happy; good stuff, all. But the team Houston fielded, more than LA’s line-up choices at least, resurrected the old case about Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs failing to take the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup seriously.

The question is, which of these teams made the right call: Houston for resting key players, or LA for killing theirs? More to the point, where do the following factors break: the number of quality soccer players in the U.S. versus the number of quality players an MLS club can afford to carry on their roster? With the number of games MLS clubs play, and given how condensed the schedule can be, it’s inevitable they have to do a little prioritizing of the games and look for players down the bench for games that seem less pressing. In other words, I side with Houston.

That’s where the question of the overall, U.S. player pool comes into play. If there are simply a limited number of top-quality players in the U.S. - e.g. in numbers that would match the Portland Timbers’ Tom Poltl’s figure of four to six per MLS roster - then it’s not so surprising that USL-1 and USL-2 teams, comprised of players with talent comparable to the outer reaches of MLS benches, would win Open Cup games with pretty regularly; after all, between two teams of roughly equal players, the guys that play together competitively most often should have an advantage.

But if the American player pool is deep enough to build 13 (soon to be 16?) top-flight teams, MLS really needs to consider either paying the depth-pool well enough to keep them in MLS, or to expand the rosters to help make the often grueling MLS schedule (just add exhibitions!) more manageable. Sure, other alternatives are out there - e.g. moving the Open Cup outside the regular season to allow teams to prioritize it - but, assuming the schedule stays the same, or even if it changes to accommodate international tournaments (to which, face it, the Open Cup will take a back seat), rejiggering MLS rosters to help them cope with the Open Cup remains the only remedy I can think.

Why, you might ask, should the powers-that-be be interested in helping MLS? Because top-flight should mean just that: MLS teams should be the best teams and winning against them should look a lot more like Richmond’s win over LA than Charleston’s win over half-Houston.


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