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Considering last night’s big U.S. Open Cup upsets

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There was a time in recent U.S. Open Cup history that early-round upsets of Major League Soccer teams was no big deal. And in truth, last night’s results in Charleston and Orlando shouldn’t give either fan base much worry. Look at cup competitions around the world, and upsets happen, especially when the favorites are on the road, come out flat, and see breaks go against them.

That’s what happened to both San Jose and Colorado, but we shouldn’t overlook the obvious. Like most MLS teams, the `Quakes and Rapids elected to rotate their squads, a gamble that blew up in their faces. Traveling to the two best teams in a seemingly improving USL PRO, Frank Yallop and Oscar Pareja underplayed their hands, electing to keep their biggest names on the bench until it was too late.

For the Rapids, Brian Mullan, Atiba Harris, and Clint Irwin, the club’s top three in MLS minutes played, were all held out Oscar Pareja’s starting XI, as were Drew Moor, Chris Klute, Deshorn Brown, Hendry Thomas, and Edson Buddle. The Rapids were down 2-1 before that were forced to start making changes, but seeing starting goalkeeper Stewart Ceus red carded early in the second half, the late inclusions of Harris and Irwin proved too little, too late.

For San Jose, Frank Yallop elected to start Chris Wondolowski on the bench, where he was joined by Jon Busch, and Sam Cronin - the Earthquakes’ three most-used players this season. Marvin Chavez and Steven Beitashour were also held out while a misfiring San Jose attack had trouble breaking through in Charleston. After a second half set piece and a Brad Ring red card, San Jose’s calculated risk had backfired, the Battery sending the Earthquakes out of the tournament.

For both teams, the loss can be pinned on a confluence of factors that started with their lineups. Having handcuffed themselves, neither Colorado nor San Jose were able to adapt to their slow starts or the inevitable roadblocks. Against the two clubs that sit at the top of USL PRO, MLS’s representatives needed to put themselves in better positions.

At the same time, it’s difficult to fault with Yallop or Pareja. Those who’ve come to embrace the U.S. Open Cup want MLS teams to take the competition more seriously, but it’s very difficult to fault MLS coaches prioritizing regular season competition over early Cup matches where half-squads are often enough. Nobody is going to support teams holding back on the weekend to be rest for mid-week games against lower-level competition, so when it comes time to travel cross-country, on short rest, for an early round U.S. Open Cup match, coaches are going to make sacrifices.

We’ll see the same tonight from Seattle and Los Angeles. It’s just a fact of life in this competition. When quick turnarounds, road trips, poor performances and some bad breaks line up, upsets are going to happen.