USL 'disappointed' with handling of MLS-U.S. Open Cup dispute

Is Lionel Messi being used as a bargaining chip in U.S. Open Cup dispute? (1:53)

Herc Gomez discusses how MLS are using players such as Lionel Messi as bargaining chips for their team's participation in the U.S. Open Cup. (1:53)

United Soccer League (USL) CEO Paul McDonough expressed disappointment at the U.S. Soccer Federation's handling of a dispute involving MLS and the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which is having a ripple effect on the USL.

The future of the Open Cup -- which was first held in 1914 -- has been in doubt since MLS announced in December that its first teams wouldn't participate, and that teams from MLS Next Pro -- its de facto reserve league -- would take their place.

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McDonough said that "a majority" of the USL's 47 teams -- spread across three divisions -- will participate in the tournament, but he's leaving the final decision on participation up to the individual USL teams. He expects to provide "clarity" to the USSF on the number of USL participants later on Wednesday.

"I'm really disappointed that [the USL teams] even have to make a decision," McDonough told ESPN. "I'm not really happy with the situation. I'm disappointed that U.S. Soccer hasn't handled the whole situation in a stronger or better fashion."

He added: "A lot of [teams] have made decisions, and we do have a majority of teams looking to participate, but I want to make sure that it's right for everybody."

At the heart of the issue, according to MLS, is an increasingly crowded schedule following the advent of new competitions like the Leagues Cup.

"Everybody in the soccer business [needs] to rethink how competitions have been organized to ensure that we can continue to evolve and manage what is the single-biggest issue for all professional soccer, and that's the management of our schedule," MLS commissioner Don Garber said about the Open Cup in an interview with ESPN late last week

The U.S. Soccer Federation, which runs the tournament, initially pushed back on MLS' decision -- given that it violated USSF standards for professional teams -- announcing that the league's request had been denied.

Yet that wasn't the end of disagreement, with MLS continuing to push for some of its teams not to participate.

Sources have told ESPN that they expect just eight of the 26 U.S.-based MLS clubs will enter their first teams, with an unspecified number of clubs from MLS Next Pro entering as well.

While a USSF subcommittee has determined that the 2024 edition will go forward, a final decision on the number of teams has not yet been made. Discussions about the format for 2025 and beyond are also taking place.

This has created consternation for the USL. The Open Cup games in which USL teams have the chance to go up against their MLS counterparts are some of the biggest games of the season for the lower-tier sides, especially in terms of revenue.

If MLS teams don't participate, or if the odds of going up against an MLS team are reduced, that takes considerable shine off the tournament. That has made some USL teams rethink their participation.

"Some [USL] teams have been very adamant that they want to be in just because the history of the Cup and what it means to them," said McDonough. "Others were just really, really upset that they're in this situation, and they've talked about not participating."

There is also a concern that if MLS teams start leaving, interest could plummet and eventually spell the end of the U.S. Open Cup.

"MLS teams participating, they're a key factor in the finances of this whole competition," said McDonough.

McDonough said that the angst in USL circles has been exacerbated by the organization having believed the issue had been dealt with by the USSF in December, only for him to be "blindsided" when it came back in January. There's also the reality that qualifying for the 2024 tournament has already started at amateur level.

"The problem I have is I understand MLS' dilemma with schedule. I get it completely," McDonough said. "The easy solution was, look, we're mid-tournament right now. Stay status quo for '24. Let's figure out how we change things for '25.

"[This is] instead of everyone going through it in December, having productive conversations and then all of a sudden, we're back to a modified December position again where I just think the USSF should have just said, 'No, this is what it is.'"

The USOC's exact format is set to be revealed in the coming days, though concern about the future -- and the power MLS wields over the game -- remains.

"If soccer's going to grow in this country -- I know [MLS] probably think differently -- it's not going be built on the back of just the 30 or 32 MLS teams," McDonough said. "It's just not."