Manager Jesse Marsch is adamant that the U.S. Open Cup is no "throw-out tournament" as his New York Red Bulls team gets set to take on Sporting Kansas City in the final (9 p.m. ET on ESPN 2/Deportes) of the annual competition for American clubs.
Marsch admits there were times when he first came to the club that many in the organization didn't treat the Open Cup as something to prioritize, but the 43-year-old boss says that's never been his attitude.
"When I first came to Red Bulls, I was aware of the fact that this organization and many of the managers here had not always taken this tournament seriously," said Marsch, whose team have never won the Cup in the club's history.
"When I came here, this was going to be something that we emphasized, and we've played a lot of good lineups in my three years here and this year we managed to survive four tough games.
"I think in this age, you see more teams playing their regular lineups. We played a lot of MLS teams as well, and every MLS team played their full lineup.
"That made for some really difficult games. But I think our team understands this is a real trophy. This isn't just a throw-out tournament."
Part of the charm of the U.S. Open Cup is that, along with the MLS clubs, it includes teams from the North American Soccer League, the United Soccer League and top amateur leagues. While none of those clubs has won the title since 1999, they occasionally pick off a few MLS clubs along the way.
That can produce an easier road for other MLS clubs to the finals, but Sporting KC had to knock off Minnesota United, the Houston Dynamo, defending champion FC Dallas and the San Jose Earthquakes to make it this year. New York beat New York City FC, the Philadelphia Union, New England Revolution and USL powerhouse FC Cincinnati to reach the championship match.
"We only played MLS teams, so we knew the matches would be very tough. We had to be prepared for them," said Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes, who led his club to titles in 2012 and '15. "I think anybody goes into this competition with everything they have. The games are very difficult.
"Our players need to get to a place where they can play three games in a week. Your main guys need to be able to play on a regular basis. So it's something we worked toward in the offseason, making sure we were in a position to play that way."
Three-time Open Cup champion Sporting KC, which will host the final at Children's Mercy Park, is currently third in the Western Conference and would comfortably be in the MLS playoffs. The Red Bulls sit sixth in the Eastern Conference but look like like they'll be in the postseason as well having a six-point gap over the chasing Montreal Impact.
However, choosing to focus on one competition was never an option for Marsch or Vermes, who share a similar vision entering the season: There are three major trophies up for grabs, including the Supporters' Shield given to the MLS club with the best regular-season record, the MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup.
"We've viewed this in many ways," said Marsch. "I think it's really solidified what we're doing with our season, and our success has given our team confidence it can win in big situations."