Welcome to the big time, Seattle! In a deliciously intriguing battle of champions, DC United, four time MLS Cup winners, four time league winners, and two time defending Open Cup champions host the four time USL champion and three time league champion, Seattle Sounders in their first Cup final as a top flight team.
The winner will hoist the Dewar Trophy as winners of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, but more importantly, it could be a changing of the guard if United fails to hang onto its legendary ability to bag trophies. While Seattle could well become the wave of the future and this trophy the springboard that builds upon their startlingly successful opening year in MLS. But they will have to wrench that trophy away from a United team that can be almost invincible in RFK, especially in big matches.
For the second straight year and third time overall, DC United gets to host the US Open Cup final, this time against the Seattle Sounders, and that has set off a quite a battle of words between the two clubs and ramped up the intensity for a trophy has too often been considered little more than an afterthought to MLS teams.
DC United, in getting the nod to host this final for the second year in a row, will now have not played an away match in this tournament for two years, a run of eight straight matches (10 if you count MLS qualifiers for the tournament). Obviously, that has the Sounders seeing red to begin with, but even more so since they were turned down for this final with what they assumed would be a much more lucrative offer to USSF which runs the tournament, considering they have averaged 30,000 fans a game in their wildly successful first year.
However, they have no where near the pedigree of DC United or the stature of RFK, nor have they averaged much in attendance in their earlier Open Cup matches, as well as the fact that due to baseball, they would have had to schedule the match at 4 PM local time on a Tuesday, hardly prime time for a Cup final. So, the sour grapes from their front office was decidedly petulant and predictably prompted an immediate response from DC United.
Club president Kevin Payne, never shy of a feisty comment, roared back that United bids aggressively for home field advantage, and maybe once Seattle has been around for a while and, you know wins a trophy or two, maybe they might get the benefit of the doubt in such situations. Comments which have blossomed into a lovely war of words between the two clubs as well as a “We Win Trophies” campaign by DC United and a seven foot trophy being driven around town among other things to generate more buzz for the match.
All of which has sparked a lot more interest in this match than has even been shown by MLS teams who far too often take this tournament much too lightly. Frankly, it’s about time someone in MLS has made the effort to even get fired up about the oldest continuously running club cup in US history. If this sparks a wave of greater interest in the Open Cup in the future, then this little tiff will surely be worthwhile in the long run, both for MLS and for the Open Cup tournament itself.
As for the match itself, it is quite an interesting matchup in its own right even without the intrigue. It will be the first time for Seattle to play in RFK, and the two teams have only ever met once before a dramatic 3-3 tie in Qwest field two and a half months ago, and since that match, both United and Seattle have been slumping pretty badly in league play.
United did manage a miracle win in Chicago over the weekend for their first win since mid July, and of course has the home field advantage, while Seattle is coming off a bitter one point performance in its last two home matches, and has only one win in almost two months as well.
Both teams are pretty evenly matched on the field too, although Seattle has some concerns about some player availability. With question marks around forward Nate Jaqua, midfielder Brad Evans, and defender Tyrone Marshall who were banged up in the 0-0 tie with Toronto, Sigi will have to be careful who he plays as the match could easily go 120 minutes, and maybe PKs, if tied after 90. Jaqua will be a game time decision on his possible concussion, as will Evans with his bum ankle, while Marshall is almost certainly out with a hamstring pull. His loss puts a serious dent in their central defense as Jhon Hurtado is already out due to suspension.
DC has some concerns too. Newly acquired winger, Ty shipalane is cup tied to Harrisburg, but more importantly, defender Julius James, who was instrumental in the win over the Fire is tied to Houston and cannot play either. So, United’s switch to a 4-4-2 could well be in jeopardy as Soehn is unlikely to trust either Burch or John in central defense, and newly acquired Burundi defender David Habarugira seems an unlikely choice for this match too. However, if Soehn can figure out a way to pull it off, a 4-4-2 would be the best tactic given the way Seattle attacks from the outsides with Ljungberg and Zakuani.
But, looking at all the options, it seems likely Soehn goes back to the 3-5-2 and plays his full starting lineup right from the gun: Emilio, Quaranta, Fred, Gomez, Pontius, Olsen, Simms, Burch, Jakovic, Namoff and Wicks going up against Sigi’s Montero, Jaqua, Zakuani, Evans, Ljungberg, Alonso, and then a bit of a patchwork defense with Gonzalez, Ianni, Wahl, and Riley in front of the legendary Kasey Keller. Interestingly, this will be Osvaldo Alonso’s second straight Open Cup final match against DC as he played for Charleston last year before being picked up by Seattle in the off-season.
Still, no matter how you draw it up, it should be a great cup final. Emilio and Fred scored the winning goals last year and often seem to raise their game at opportune times. The switch back five in midfield also frees up Gomez quite a bit which should help the offense tremendously, and against a depleted Seattle defense could be the key to a wide open game. Plus, it allows Olsen to play centrally where his experience and grit are enormously important for DC.
Seattle, though has the potential to easily keep pace as Ljungberg and Zakuani are explosive players and both Jaqua and Montero are a handful to control, which given DC’s defensive problems this season, might mean this match ends up with a baseball score instead of the usual extremely tight results typical of Cup finals.
The difference might just go down to the intangibles and DC has the edge there by light-years. United is 16-1-1 at home in the Open Cup, including having hosted, and hoisted, the Cup twice right here. All in all, DC is 8-1-1 in Cup finals and haven’t lost a Cup final in over ten years. True, they have only been in two cup finals since 1999, but they won both of them, the 2004 MLS Cup and last year’s Open Cup. DC has only lost that travesty in MLS Cup ’98, and lost the Open Cup final to Dallas in ’97 on PKs which is officially considered a tie.
DC also boasts the leading scorer in the modern era of the Open Cup as well as the most prolific goal scorer in MLS history in Jaime Moreno, who will almost certainly come off the bench in this match. He scored his record 12th goal against Rochester to help DC make it to this final, and his MLS career is legendary. Even more than that, DC will field a team with at least 8 players with Cup final experience including Moreno who has played in all of United’s Open Cup final matches, scoring in ’96, converting a PK in the PK loss to Dallas, and 90 minutes last year.
Seattle on the other hand has never made it past the semi-finals of this tournament despite their gaudy credentials, and they are 4-7-1 lifetime against MLS teams in the Open Cup. True, most of that was as a USL team, but that lack of success aside from their run this year leaves little to build on. Plus, as talented as they clearly are, only Jaqua, Ljungberg, Alonso, and Evans have any experience in a Cup final of this magnitude, and they have had to make the midweek trek 2,400 miles to play here. So, how well Seattle handles the atmosphere tomorrow will go a long way towards how the match plays out.
It should be an epic final given the circumstances, though. It’s possible both teams will play cautious like a typical final match, but I don’t think so as it’s in neither team’s best interests to pay tight. Seattle should play wide open because their strength is in their attack with a banged up defense, and DC clearly has a better offense than defense, despite the fact that both teams are concentrating on tightening up lately and both coming off shutouts. Plus, given that this is both team’s best chance at hardware this season
For Seattle, a win would produce their first ever trophy in their inaugural year in MLS, which would match a record set by the Chicago Fire who also won the Open Cup to go along with a disputed MLS Cup in their first year. Should DC United emerge victorious, it would be their third Open Cup trophy, behind only Chicago’s four titles among the MLS elite. United would also become the first ever back to back champions of the Open Cup in MLS, and the first repeat champions in over 25 years since Macabee AC (Los Angeles) won it in 1977-78.
This is also the only time two MLS teams who had to qualify have ever met in the Cup final. Also, this is the first time MLS teams have had to go through two qualifiers, so whoever wins the Cup will have won the most games of any MLS team in any single tournament.