The Columbus Crew lost in the U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 on Wednesday night, falling to the Pittsburgh Riverounds 1-0. The road defeat, in front of a record crowd for the motivated USL Championship side, meant that the Crew did not reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 2010 when the Black & Gold lost in the championship game to the Seattle Sounders.
Columbus deployed a largely reserve lineup, with only two regular starters and multiple Crew 2 contributors. Pittsburgh pushed more for the game, looking to reach the team’s first quarterfinals in 20-plus years.
The result and the performance were reflective of these decisions as the Crew looked disjointed with players who clearly had not spent much time together in game situations while the Riverhounds found ways to be dangerous.
Let’s take a look at What We Learned from this Open Cup defeat.
Expectations between fans and the team are different
The U.S. Open Cup is the oldest club competition in the country and it was the first trophy the Black & Gold won. And while that may mean something to those in the stands, it means significantly less to the players on the field.
This year’s winner of the Open Cup essentially receives a pat on the back and a more difficult start to the 2024 season. U.S. Soccer awards the Open Cup winner with $300,000 in prize money. While the MLS Cup winner also receives what is believed to be the same amount, MLS teams also get bonuses for winning in each round, resulting in over $1 million in prize money. That is essentially this year’s salary for Columbus left back Jimmy Medranda. By comparison, the winner of the FA Cup, England’s version of the Open Cup takes home £2 million
The Open Cup winner also gets a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League. Only one MLS team, last season’s Seattle Sounders, has won the Champions League. Largely due to a poor start to the season while focusing on the Champions League, Seattle failed to make the MLS Cup playoffs in one of the team’s worst MLS campaigns in its history. Other than winning the tournament, this has been the case for many MLS sides who played in the Champions League: a tough start to the regular season that requires tired legs to make up for later in the year.
So what is the incentive to win the Open Cup for MLS teams?
For many sides, it is the possibility of bringing home a first trophy. This was the case for Orlando City SC last year, a team that is still rather young when it comes to the overall history and hasn’t had the success the club would like in MLS. A trophy, even one that doesn’t come with much reward, is still a trophy and important for Orlando, just like it was for the Crew in 2002.
While Black & Gold fans may want their team to “go for it” in the Open Cup, the incentive for Columbus on the field is small. If the Crew puts its eggs in the Open Cup basket and players get tired or hurt, it becomes harder to qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs and achieve the ultimate goal of winning MLS Cup.
Fans have a right to be disappointed with the Black & Gold bowing out of the Open Cup — and players and coaches should be as well — especially against a USL Championship side. But given what winning the Open Cup grants a team that has bigger goals, it’s never going to be a major priority, at least until a team like Columbus reaches the later stages.
Head coach Wilfried Nancy came under some scrutiny for his lineup decisions against the Riverounds. Asked after the game, he pointed to normal rotation during a busy stretch and the fact that the Crew had used a similar lineup in the previous Open Cup matches.
Nancy is correct. In the Black & Gold’s three Open Cup games, 18 players were used as starters. Two of those were forward Cucho Hernandez and midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who played in the first match of the tournament for fitness reasons. Of the other 16, five started all three games: goalkeeper Evan Bush, defender Philip Quinton, wing back Max Arfsten and midfielders Sean Zawadski and Isaiah Parente. Only one of those players, Quinton, has been a regular contributor for the first team and that has largely been due to injury.
Four other players — forwards Jacen Russell-Rowe and Christian Ramirez, winger Yaw Yeboah (who is currently recovering from a minor injury) and center back Gustavo Vallecilla — started two matches.
The lineup Nancy put out to start against Pittsburgh was no surprise given what he had done in the previous two matches. Eight of the starters against the Riverhounds also started the Round of 32 match at Loudoun United, a 5-1 win by Columbus, another USL Championship side.
Might Nancy have realized that this was going to be a tougher fight than against Loudoun given the teams’ difference in the USL Championship standings and the experience of Pittsburgh’s team? There’s an argument to be made there. But given the Crew has played seven games in under a month, plays again on the road in MLS on Sunday and has battled some injury issues already this year, there weren’t many other changes for Nancy to make given the data he and his staff are given on players condition after games and training sessions.
Nancy could have brought a bit more attacking firepower to potentially come off the bench. The offensive changes available were two Crew 2 players, one a 17 year old who just recently signed with the reserve team from the Academy. While the ideal situation would not have been to play them, the ability to bring Hernandez or playmaker Lucas Zelarayan into the game in the second half for 20 or 30 minutes to try and grab two goals could have been the difference between staying the competition or not.
Of course, Columbus’ main issue in the match was the lack of chemistry in the midfield and an inability to build up from wide areas, so adding Hernandez or Zelarayan doesn’t guarantee anything.
Looking at the lineups across MLS, some teams chose to play more starters — most of those teams were also playing other MLS teams — but all rotated their lineups. While FC Cincinnati played some of the same starters that helped defeat the Crew over the weekend, for example, it still required extra time to get by the New York Red Bulls, and Cincinnati suffered more injuries. Charlotte FC played a stronger lineup than the Black & Gold and still lost to Birmingham Legion FC.
This is the cup and these upsets are what make it fun… unless it’s your team that goes home.
Gap in level
If you hadn’t realized it before, this game should be a good example of the level difference between MLS NEXT Pro and MLS and even the fringe players in MLS when compared to regular starters and the stars. Even the level of good USL Championship sides, grown men playing professional soccer, is still a step above.
Pittsburgh was able to do nearly whatever the team wanted in this game. The Riverhounds created plenty and stopped Columbus from getting out of the back and connecting to the attack time after time. Crew 2’s Thomas Roberts particularly struggled, and not just when giving the ball away prior to the lone goal. Isaiah Parente and Max Arfsten, two players who have seen minimal action with the first team, looked out of place, barely completing 80 percent of their combined passes despite playing for the favorites. The same could be said of center back Keengan Hughes, who did not make a tackle in the game and consistently had to recover on his man instead of being in the right position to begin with.
For the most part, these are young players who have the chance to still develop into more regular contributors for the Crew. But there remains a gap in level once Nancy goes too deep in his bench, one that was exposed by Pittsburgh in this game.