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BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Annual tournament feels like another coaches' obligation

A fair number of fans will be at Providence Park at 8 p.m. Wednesday when the Los Angeles Galaxy visits for a fifth-round match in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament.

The Timbers have only played one game in Portland in 2019, and their upgraded stadium is a draw in itself.

But I doubt there is a lot of interest in the Open Cup. Figure most would much rather see the Timbers beat Houston at 8 p.m. Saturday in MLS play than advance one more step in the U.S. Open Cup.

Figure coach Giovanni Savarese feels the same way, given the Timbers are at the bottom of the Western Conference (albeit with games in-hand and a heavy home schedule ahead).

The U.S. Open Cup is the 106-year-old national tournament that in theory gives amateur teams and lower-level pro outfits the opportunity to compete for national glory. Except that it doesn't work that way.

Instead of being a chance for lower-level clubs to shine, the Open Cup feels like just another obligation for MLS coaches to juggle.

Taylor Twellman, an ESPN soccer analyst and former MLS and U.S. national team player, recently sounded off on the subject. Twellman argued that MLS teams should enter the tournament sooner than the fourth round and play on the road at lower-division teams to begin their Cup quest.

Twellman's compelling argument is that because there is no promotion/relegation, the tournament is one chance for U.S. Soccer to grow the sport in markets lacking a top-flight club. 

Portland fans need only think back a decade to understand the power of a visit from an MLS club. In 2009, the Sounders came to PGE Park and beat the lower-division Timbers before more than 16,000 fans.

In 2004, Landon Donovan and the San Jose Earthquakes played at Portland in the fourth round and drew a season-high of more than 10,000 to watch the A-League Timbers battle one of the top teams in MLS. (The Earthquakes won 3-0; it didn't help Portland's cause when defender Gavin Wilkinson was given a red card for grabbing Brian Ching, forcing the Timbers to play a man down for 72 minutes).

Those games were a big deal. They didn't directly lead to the Timbers joining MLS, but they didn't hurt.

By comparison, these days an extra match between the Timbers and Galaxy or even the Timbers and Sounders hardly moves the needle.

The 21 U.S.-based MLS teams entered the 2019 tourney last week. Five of the 16 games had MLS clubs going head-to-head. Worse, the MLS clubs were home for 10 of the 11 games against lower-division opponents.

If MLS teams don't open on the road, it would be better to keep them out of the bracket longer. If four MLS teams entered in the quarterfinals, the tournament would at least feel more wide-open. MLS would need to determine how its four clubs would qualify, but the simplest solution might be to take the four American teams with the highest points-per-game average at the end of June. Perhaps certain regular-season games could double as Cup qualifiers.

U.S. Soccer needs MLS involved for the Open Cup to have any value. But MLS clubs — especially those whose new owners are forking over nine-figure sums to join America's top division — are reluctant to risk an embarrassing loss (or, worse, a significant injury) by traveling to play a lower-division opponent. So, it's a conundrum.

Wednesday's game might be entertaining — figure the Timbers and Galaxy will use players hungry for an opportunity while many regulars rest for the weekend. Still, I wonder which team will leave feeling better: the winner still three wins away from a tournament championship or the loser that avoids a three-game week in mid-July?

If the teams' motivation is hard to define, how excited should fans be about the U.S. Open Cup?

Fortunately, other soccer options abound.

• The shorthanded Thorns are at Providence Park for an 8 p.m. Friday game against Utah. With nine players at the Women's World Cup and three others not available, Portland gutted out a 1-1 draw on Saturday at North Carolina. Despite playing seven of eight on the road, the Thorns (4-1-3, 15 points) are third in the National Women's Soccer League.

• At the Women's World Cup, the U.S. finishes group play at noon PT Thursday against Sweden, having clinched a spot in the final 16. A win or draw against Sweden means a 9 a.m. PT Monday game against Spain or China. Should Sweden win on Thursday, USA begins knockout play at noon PT Monday against Canada or the Netherlands (who meet at 9 a.m. PT Thursday).

• The Gold Cup, the men's championship of North and Central America and the Caribbean, goes through July 7. The U.S. and Mexico typically dominate. The U.S. opens group play at 7 p.m. PT Tuesday in Minnesota against Guyana.

Timbers midfielder Andres Flores is on the El Salvador team.

• South America's regional champion, Copa America, has Andy Polo and Peru in action at 2:30 p.m. PT Tuesday against Bolivia.

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