By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 30, 2011) US Soccer Players — And once again it’s the schedule.  This time, it’s Blackburn openly admitting they’re prioritizing the league on their way out of the Carling Cup.  Blackburn manager Steve Kean made the headline writers in England happy by using the term ‘forfeited’ in his post-game comments, making it clear that the team with the worst record in the Premier League needed to focus on that rather than advancing in a cup competition. 

Cardiff City obliged, knocking them out 2-0 at the quarterfinal stage. 

"This game was important," Kean said.  "The fringe lads deserved the opportunity, we’ve been quite strong in this competition, but when we don’t win then the spotlight is obviously on everybody, me included.  So we’ll all face up to that, we are really disappointed tonight, but if I had to decide what team had to be the stronger then it has to be Saturday’s."

You can hardly blame him. Regardless of which side of the Atlantic you reside in, prioritizing competitions is nothing new. Blackburn’s argument is certainly stronger than what we saw last season in Major League Soccer, a league without the trapdoor of relegation.

In the US Open Cup, the New York Red Bulls sent an understrength team to Chicago without their head coach.  In the CONCACAF Champions League, coaches openly prioritized the MLS schedule with their squad selections.  At Champions League level, that roll of the dice actually worked.  Squads that wouldn’t be favored in MLS games picked up road wins in Mexico of all places, bringing an end to the run of MLS futility in that country. 

As the thinking goes, there’s always a chance for an upset.  That’s true even if you’ve made the choice to push the odds against you.  In MLS last season, it was Western Conference teams in the Champions League trying to make sure they didn’t slip into the wildcard slots or worse.  In the Premier League, it’s a club making the pragmatic decision to save their best for the games that will determine their league status. 

With the immediate economic impact of dropping to the Championship costing more than several MLS payrolls, Blackburn and any team in their situation are almost sympathetic.  Short of making the final, few will remember that they crashed out at the quarterfinal stage of the Carling Cup whether or not they end up safe or relegated at the end of the season.  Thinking solely in terms of what they need right now, they probably made the smartest decision. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean it was the best decision for the Carling Cup.  Though Blackburn was by far the most overt in describing their priorities, there are other clubs who probably aren’t in need of therapy after losing on Tuesday.  Arsenal lost 1-0 at home to Manchester City using an experimental lineup, and manager Arsene Wenger made a familiar point.

鈥淲e want to continue our unbeaten run in the Premier League now, that’s where it is important,鈥?he said. 鈥淥verall it’s a shame to lose a game like that at home, especially when you feel you do not deserve to lose it."

We’re back to our ‘on the night’ thinking, when any team can beat any other regardless of roster decisions.

Keeping that in mind, the big clubs create a type of parity by opting for squad players in this competition.  It’s expected, just like the Mexican clubs in the CONCACAF Champions League fielding weaker teams at home where they already have a sizeable advantage. 

Don’t confuse ‘expected’ with ‘appropriate.’   "Come see second best" isn’t the way anyone wants to promote a cup competition, even when the attendances don’t drop off dramatically.  Most fans understand when their teams need to prioritize the league, or at least they’ve adjusted over the years.  Enough fans continue to show up.  Still, there’s the basic idea of a sporting competition and the ideal of best effort. 

Look at it like this. In the modern era of the cup competitions in England, the idea of a cup team has become a backhanded compliment. Why would any team admit to prioritizing a competition that so many others have written off? The downside is steep for a first choice club losing to one that played their reserves. Seasons have shifted on less.

It’s that artificial parity issue, caused when enough of the clubs involved in any competition start significantly tinkering with their lineups.

Coaches tend to use ‘best effort’ to cover any member of their squad on the field at any given time.  As the thinking goes, the player on the field is giving his best, even if that’s normally saved for reserve team games.  We get that, even as it erodes the spirit of the competition. 

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

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