Photo: Bob Larson, Stellar Performance Photography
Some six days after the expected announcement on July 2, the date and time for the quarterfinal US Open Cup tie between New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union was finally announced for 4 p.m. on July 21.
That’s right, a US Open Cup quarterfinal game featuring one of last year’s finalists against perhaps its biggest league rival had been scheduled for 4 p.m. on a Tuesday.
The reason for the date and time, and the reason for the delay? Well, that’s a long story.
A little background
When the calendar for the 2015 US Open Cup was announced on Feb. 4, it was a a cause for celebration among fans of the venerable tournament. But an announcement on April 28 concerning the schedule of another tournament, the 2015 International Champions Cup (ICC), would eventually prove to be reason behind the delay.
Few noted then that several MLS teams were scheduled to play ICC games on the dates that had been announced in February as set aside for the quarterfinals of the Open Cup. But, the day before the start of Open Cup’s fifth round, an article at the Washington Post from Steven Goff alerted fans to the looming scheduling conflict: Fifth round opponents LA Galaxy (Barcelona) and San Jose Earthquakes (Manchester United) had also scheduled ICC games on July 21, while the New York Red Bulls were scheduled to host Chelsea at Red Bull Arena on July 22. To complicate matters further, an ICC game between Fiorentina and Paris Saint-Germain was also scheduled at Red Bull Arena to kick off on July 21 at 8:30 pm.
Following LA’s victory over San Jose, LA and Real Salt Lake announced their quarterfinal match would take place in Salt Lake on July 14 outside of the window of quarterfinal dates published in February.
With the Union’s win over DC United in the books, and the Red Bulls-New York Cosmos game yet to be played, an article published on the US Soccer website on July 1 listed the potential Red Bulls-Union quarterfinal date as July 15, with the New York Post‘s Brian Lewis and Goff tweeting the same. But the date in the US Soccer article was quickly updated to TBD and Lewis tweeted later the same day that a date around the time of the MLS All-Star Game was more likely.
Soon rumblings were heard that negotiations between the two clubs to find a new date were not going smoothly as Red Bulls and Union fans might have hoped.
At first glance, the here-now-and-gone-again July 15 date for the Red Bulls-Union matchup seems the obvious choice. After all, LA and Salt Lake had reached an agreement to reschedule their quarterfinal matchup for July 14.
But the Union had scheduled a summer friendly against new Premier League side Bournemouth for July 14. This would this be Bournemouth’s first-ever match and the Union playing a meaningful game the next day was a no-go. Aaron Bauer wrote in the Red Bulls blog Once a Metro that the July 15 date wouldn’t work, “It is safe to say the Union would try to avoid playing the game on this date at all costs.”
Most of the reporting that has been done on the negotiations has referred to unnamed sources, but speaking in his weekly press conference on July 8 a few hours before the July 21 date was announced, Union head coach Jim Curtin described the scheduling uncertainty as “most unfair…it’s most unfair to the Philadelphia Union fans and the New York Red Bulls fans that don’t know when the game is going to be, the time, the day.” He said of the negotiations between the two clubs, “I’ve been on all correspondence with it. There’s some good healthy conversations, there’s some that aren’t productive. I think a lot of people are frustrated by it.”
No one is happy
When the 4 p.m. kickoff for the quarterfinal game was finally announced, no one was happy. Before the rescheduled date was announced, Bauer at Once a Metro suggested July 28 as a possible date for the quarterfinal but, with the All-Star Game on July 29, that date seems to never have been in serious play. Needless to say, the possibility the Red Bulls might forfeit the Open Cup game was unthinkable. Such a recourse would be bad for them and for the Open Cup tournament.
So why couldn’t the teams come to an agreement?
At the New York Post, Lewis reported after the rescheduled date had been announced that sources said “the Red Bulls found a common off date to reschedule the game, but shifting the game required not only the approval of the US Soccer Federation but the opponent. The Union countered with a proposal to move the game to Philadelphia, which the Red Bulls opted not to do.”
Citing unnamed sources, Dave Martinez reported at the New York soccer website Empire of Soccer said the Red Bulls had found “willing partners within USSF” to change the date — presumably to July 15, though Martinez does not say — but the Union had played “hardball” in the scheduling negotiations, with one source calling the Union a “bad partner.” The quotes were no doubt accurately reported but it was too easy for neutral observers to read them as an attempt by the Red Bulls to deflect widespread fan anger from themselves for the situation they created by agreeing to the ICC dates toward the Union. A tweet from Empire of Soccer reporter Mark Fishkin suggested the Red Bulls had been assured by US Soccer in January that there would be flexibility in scheduling before the team accepted the offer to play in the ICC. If that was the case, it was a curious, if not unsporting, assurance for US Soccer to make given that such flexibility was dependent on the agreement of whoever the Red Bulls’ opponent might be.
Nevertheless, Curtin’s comments in his press conference are probably a good indication of the Union’s position in the negotiations: “We knew in February that the Open Cup dates were the 21st and the 22nd; we planned our schedule accordingly.” Acknowledging the difficulties of scheduling the game on July 21 because of the ICC game that same night, Curtin explained, “The 21st, is it perfect? No, they have I believe Fiorentina-PSG play that evening at Red Bull Arena. We’re more than willing to host the game here, we’d love to.”
In other words, the Union believed they had planned responsibly in scheduling the Bournemouth friendly and were unwilling to concede competitive advantage simply because the Red Bulls had, through their own decisions, created a scheduling conflict that mostly affected them. That the Union apparently were willing to fight to gain competitive advantage in exchange for easing the Red Bulls scheduling woes should come as no surprise. It’s the kind of gamesmanship that is as old as the Open Cup tournament itself.
Interestingly, if New York Red Bulls had lost their fifth round match to New York Cosmos, the Union would have hosted the quarterfinals at PPL Park on July 22. While the winner of the Red Bulls-Cosmos match had been drawn to host the quarterfinal games, scheduling conflicts at their home field at Hofstra University and alternate grounds forced the Cosmos to give up their hosting rights to the next round before they had even played the Red Bulls.
On to the game
The Union, trying to find their feet in a difficult season and looking to redeem last year’s loss in the final to Seattle, have made it clear they will field the strongest team possible when they meet the Red Bulls. As Curtin described, “The Philadelphia Union respects the Open Cup competition. There’s two trophies you can lift in this country, and that’s one of them. It’s a prestigious tournament and one that I’ve played in.” Their “hardball” negotiations only underscore the importance of the game to the club.
But, given CBA restrictions against players playing in games within 36 hours, what kind of side will the Red Bulls field? Will they field a strong side in an attempt to win the actually meaningful Open Cup quarterfinal game, and so risk a blowout and the resulting damage to the team’s reputation by featuring a largely reserve side against Chelsea. Sure, the Chelsea game is essentially meaningless but it’ll likely be played in front of a full house, not to mention being broadcast on ESPN Deportes, Fox Soccer Plus, Fox Soccer 2Go, and Chelsea TV. While it is perhaps fortunate for the Red Bulls that it’s the only game of the US leg of the ICC tournament not on Fox Sports 1 or Fox Sports 2 and so won’t be as widely viewed as it might be, as Lewis wrote at the New York Post, “Clearly, they’ll have to prioritize, and sources said they will field the stronger team against Philadelphia.”
Red Bulls boss Jesse Marsch has confirmed he will field the strongest team possible against the Union. “Yes. Yes. Yes. Obviously we have to figure out what that means at that time but we’re going after the game, for sure.”
In case you’re wondering, the lead-up to the Open Cup game won’t be easy for either the Union or the Red Bulls. On Saturday, July 18, the Union play Toronto away at 4 p.m., and the Red Bulls play Orlando away the same day at 7:30 p.m.
For fans, though, it won’t be easy to attend the 4 p.m. US Open Cup quarterfinal game between two rivals. And that’s the real shame of it all.
2015 US Open Cup Quarterfinal schedule
Tuesday, July 14
Los Angeles Galaxy at Real Salt Lake – 10 p.m. ET
Tuesday, July 21
Philadelphia Union (MLS) at New York Red Bulls (MLS) – 4 p.m. ET
Houston Dynamo (MLS) at Sporting Kansas City (MLS) – 8:30 p.m. ET
Wednesday, July 22
Orlando City SC (MLS) at Chicago Fire (MLS) – 8:30 p.m. ET
Semifinals schedule (Date TBA)
Orlando City/Chicago winner at Philadelphia/New York winner
LA Galaxy/RSL winner at Sporting KC/Houston winner
Ed Farnsworth is the managing editor of the PhillySoccerPage.com and is a member of the Society for American Soccer History. You can follow him on Twitter @FarnsworthPSP.