It’s fair to say the Seattle Sounders FC will make history tonight when it defends its Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title against the Columbus Crew at Qwest Field.
The Sounders could be the first repeat Open Cup champions since the beginning of Major League Soccer in 1996 — and the first back-to-back winner since the New York Pancyprian Freedoms captured the title in 1982-83.
At the very least, the Sounders expect attendance to exceed 30,000, and that will eclipse the previous attendance record of 21,583 set back in the 1929 title match pitting New York Hakoah against Madison Kennel Club of St. Louis. The record in the tournament’s modern era is 19,164 for the 2000 final between the Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion.
The Open Cup, recognized as U.S. Soccer’s National Championship, is an annual competition open to all amateur and professional soccer teams affiliated with U.S. Soccer. The knockout tournament has crowned a champion for 96 consecutive years dating back to 1914. It is the oldest annual tournament in U.S. team sports history and among the oldest soccer tournaments of its type in the world. In 1999, organizers renamed it to honor longtime soccer pioneer Lamar Hunt.
But the U.S. Open Cup, similar to the more well known English FA Cup, has seen its prestige decline — even during the MLS era. Most MLS teams use the qualifying rounds to play mostly reserves and view the MLS Cup and CONCACAF Champions League to be the bigger prizes. This is even true in England, where observers bemoan the decline in popularity of the FA Cup– the world’s oldest knockout tournament.
What’s appealing about the U.S. Open Cup is that it is a truly open competition. This is the one time amateur and semi-professional teams, as well as United Soccer League clubs, all have the opportunity to knock out the MLS giants and grab some improbable glory for themselves.
But in reality, it hasn’t happened too often. The last underdog to win was Rochester, which defeated Colorado in 1999. Rochester plays in the United Soccer League, Division 1 and really cannot be considered a minnow in the true sense of the word.
For that, we need to go back to 1987, at least for a Seattle-based club. Even then, the amateur Mitre Eagles fell to Club Espana of Washington, D.C. on penalties following a 0-0 draw. But that was during the era when only amateur or semi-professional teams flourished in regional leagues. The NASL Sounders had folded several years earlier, but the NASL teams ignored the Cup during the league’s heyday.
The Sounders, in the modern era, have always participated and went far into the tournament. Sounders FC won the title in 2009 and the USL-1 Sounders reached that stage in both 2007 (against FC Dallas) and 2008 (Charleston). The A-League Sounders competed on an annual basis, beginning in 1995. They lost to El Paso in the semifinals that season, and also advanced to the final four in 1996.
The Open Cup’s declining prestige should not influence the excitement of tonight’s match, though. The winner automatically earns a berth in the 2011-2012 Champions League that has proven to be massive challenge and perhaps offers a higher competitive level than the MLS. The winner of the Champions League qualifies for the World Club Championships.
What’s more, tonight’s match pits two teams that are in form — Seattle and Columbus. The Crew has been an MLS powerhouse for three years, winning two Supporters Shields and an MLS Cup in the past two seasons. Columbus, which won the 2002 Open Cup, has clinched a playoff spot and enters the week second in the Eastern Conference.
Sounders FC (12-9-6, 42 points) has won three straight in league-including two on the road-and remains the hottest MLS team. It sports an 8-1-2 record in the last 11 games and is 6-0-2 at home in eight MLS and Open Cup matches since June 10. Seattle is 2-0-2 against Columbus in four MLS meetings, recently clobbering them at Columbus, 3-0.
“It’s going to be a great game,” Coach Sigi Schmid said. “It’s going to be an exciting game. It’s going to be a game that the fans don’t want to miss, but it’s also going to be a game between two good teams that are in form.”