External competitions inevitably prompt a cost-benefit analysis for MLS clubs. There are considerations to weigh with every CONCACAF Champions League or Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match added to the fixture list. There are corresponding issues to factor into the calculations before determining a course of action.
Most of the time, MLS coaches err on the side of league play. It makes sense: their jobs usually hinge on MLS achievements, not deep tournament runs.
Some clubs place a higher premium on Champions League or Open Cup results, but most teams are happy enough to proceed with caution and see what happens. These additional matches provide a chance to give the regulars some rest and rotate the squad to evaluate players pushing their own claims for first-team action. It leaves them exposed to the potential upset with NASL or USL PRO sides more than capable of ousting them on a given night, but it makes sense in the broader scope of a season and the wider viewpoint of the priorities at hand.
The calculations start to change at this point in the Open Cup, though. Six MLS clubs feature among the eight quarterfinalists poised to take the field in midweek. Three victories stand between the remaining sides and a chance to lift a trophy. It is a natural point to start assessing whether to alter the team selection accordingly.
The motivation of winning a trophy factors into the equation now. The path to glory is much, much shorter. It might make sense to risk a couple of additional starters or name the strongest possible squad in a bid to advance for another round. The possibility of playing a home game at the semifinal stage — FC Dallas, Portland and Seattle will host if they advance — adds a further enticement and a more palatable road toward the eventual end product.
It remains a delicate balance to strike, though. MLS is back in full swing after the World Cup break last month. There are league fixtures to consider. There are points to win along the way. The fallout from embracing an Open Cup run is perilous. One stray result here or there could comprise the difference between a playoff berth and a few free weeks in November. And the players employed to reach this point in the tournament likely want to continue their pursuit instead of yielding the floor to the starters.
Each coach and each club needs to construct its own course of action. The demands of a derby match between Portland and Seattle might require a different outlook from an all-MLS affair or a meeting between a MLS team and a NASL side. There are travel considerations to contemplate before and after the match. There is fatigue to weigh as well.
All of those factors enter the constant evaluation made by clubs and coaches as this tournament unfolds. And, at this stage, the balance usually starts to tip in favor of the Open Cup.
LAMAR HUNT U.S. OPEN CUP QUARTERFINAL FIXTURES
Philadelphia Union (MLS) — New England Revolution (MLS)
PPL Park, Chester, Pa.
Atlanta Silverbacks (NASL) — Chicago Fire (MLS)
Atlanta Silverbacks Park, Chamblee, Ga.
Carolina Railhawks (NASL) — FC Dallas (MLS)
WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary, N.C.
Seattle Sounders FC (MLS) — Portland Timbers (MLS)