DC Defends Dewar Trophy Against Upstart Seattle Sounders in US Open Cup

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.

A Tough Qwest Up Next for DC United

The Sounders bolted onto the scene this year with three straight shutout wins to start their first season in MLS. While they have struggled a bit of late, they remain near the top in the West mostly due to their lively home field advantage at Qwest field where they are 4-1-2 and have sold out all 28 thousand seats for every game so far this season.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt the team also boasts the reigning MLS coach of the year who led the Crew to the title last season. However, by far the most important player to date has been former US international goalkeeping legend, Kasey Keller. All he has done in his brief time is add his name to MLS record books by being the only goalie in MLS history to debut with three straight shutouts as well as set an MLS record 457 minute scoreless streak.

Keller is truly the backbone of the second best defense in the league as Seattle has only surrendered 11 goals in 13 games, only 4 of which have come at home and Seattle has yet to give up more than one at home in any game all year. Add that to the fact that Seattle has yet to lose when scoring a goal and DC hasn’t pitched a shutout on road since last October. So clearly the first goal in this game will be excruciatingly important.

However, scoring first on the road has been something of a specialty for DC’s league leading offense so far this year as they have taken the lead in 5 out of 6 road matches. Unfortunately, DC has only converted all those leads into wins one time against a pitiful NY side and they needed a miracle to do it. Their other leads have been squandered by giving up two ties to LA and KC, as well as losing to RSL and to NE last week on that horrific late PK.

However, Seattle’s home wins haven’t been really all that scary. They have beaten NY, SJ twice, and RSL, all of whom stink on the road if not downright stink overall. The Western teams don’t play on field turf so that is an advantage for Seattle in their own conference, but DC is well versed with playing on that surface (and worse) playing in the Eastern conference which has three fake fields in use. Anyway, point is Seattle has played very well at home overall, but maybe hasn’t really proven themselves against the better teams in the league yet.

Looking at the lineups for this match, both teams should be pretty close to full strength. DC will be without Jaime Moreno’s strained hamstring as he didn’t even make the trip. It also seems pretty unlikely Ben Olsen will play much if at all coming back from his hamstring problem and  considering the field turf and long flight. However, DC does get back Luciano Emilio from suspension and should have everyone else available for this, the second of 3 games in 8 days.

Seattle has a slight worry in Cuban defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso who is recently back from a quad injury playing just 15 minutes off the subs bench in their last outing. Plus, Tyrone Marshall is questionable after an ugly tumble left him with a hobbled knee in their last match. Still, both are expected to be on the roster for this match, and even if they don’t play, former UMd midfielder Stephen King has played admirably for Alonso and former Houston defender Patrick Ianni played for the suspended Jhon Kennedy Hurtado in the last game and can surely cover for Marshall just as well.

I think Seattle goes with their best in this one as they will want to make a statement against one of the best teams in the history of the league. Seattle is making history this year, but DC United has been making history for 13 years, mostly at the expense of Sigi the Hutt, who would love nothing better than to equal United (and Chicago) with a title in their first year of existence. Plus, Seattle are getting back so many players from injury and suspension that they will want to get everybody back on the same page in order to put their recent struggles behind them.

So, Quatto will be likely to start Jaqua and Montero at forward even though LeToux has been outplaying both of them lately, Sigi has made it clear they are his preferred starting tandem. He has also moved Ljungberg out wide to keep Evans central which has helped balance the midfield better even though results haven’t been necessarily as good. Zakuani on the other side has been scary good too, but oddly enough not all that effective on the score-sheet.

Soehn, on the other hand, is a bit more tricky to figure out. The only other midweek league match he’s had this year, he trotted out quite a few bench players particularly in the defense. Ironically, DC was on a two game win streak back then which had just vaulted the team into the Eastern conference lead as well. But, with a midweek road match in KC, Soehn tinkered and rested some guys leading to a tepid tie in KC and it was over a month before the team won again against NY, which was the start of this current two game win streak. So, it will be interesting to see how he handles it this time.

Anyway in that previous midweek game in KC, Greg Janicki got only his second start of the year, while Avery John and Brandon Barklage got their only starts of the year at left back and center midfield respectively. So, Soehn may well be sorely tempted to make as many subs again for Seattle especially considering Namoff and Simms have had virtually no rest, while Burch and Janicki have had very little. However, given the previous results, and with Wicks so recently locking down the goalkeeper slot, it might not be a good idea to trot out a whole new defense in front of him after only one practice and a long travel day.

Offensively, there’s precious little reason to rest people either. Gomez has had plenty of rest and is just coming into his best form with that spectacular free kick winner in the last game. Emilio is obviously rested too. It seems unlikely any of the young players like Pontius, Wallace, Jacobson and certainly not Quaranta will want to sit the bench either. Nor is it the best time to introduce young or new players with very little experience into a match at the very rowdy Qwest field.

So, with all those things in mind, I suspect Soehn plays his veterans for the most part, and only saves the young guys for the Saturday swing into Colorado where the altitude maybe hampers older players a bit, but the placid crowd at the Dick won’t intimidate the youngsters at all.

Seattle is at its best with Ljungberg and Zakuani creating havoc out wide pulling apart teams for Jaqua and Montero or LeToux to exploit the holes in the middle. DC has been very good at shutting down outside threats lately, but must be able to do that while still getting their wide guys forward themselves. If DC wingers get pinned back, it will be a tough match to win. If it goes the other way, United has a good shot at it as long as Keller doesn’t pull off another magic act.

This is defiantly going to be the best match of the weekend. Both teams are extremely evenly matched. Hurtado against Emilio, Ljungberg against Fred, Pontius against Zakuani, Gomez against Alonso, Montero against Jakovic, etc. etc. With Seattle at home and Keller in the nets, you have to favor the Sounders in front of that raucous crowd, especially given DC’s relatively weak road form overall. But DC has the experience and the weapons to surprise Seattle if they manage to put it all together.

It’s too bad this road swing couldn’t be against some easier teams though. Coming off a resounding win over Chicago to take the lead in the East, now is a perfect time to extend that lead considering Chicago, KC, and NE are all off for the next two weeks with Superliga, and Toronto doesn’t play this week either. It sure is nice to not have to worry about that idiotic tournament, and it does take some of the pressure off staying in the lead when you know most of the teams near the top will not be collecting points. Only the Crew might creep closer IF they win in Dallas this weekend and DC doesn’t pick up points this week.

On the other hand, if DC handles this Qwest it would be a huge boost for them going forward. DC just feels like they are right on the edge of becoming consistently good. They’ve shown the resiliency to pull off results, the skill to dominate for long stretches, and more recently, the commitment to shutting down opponents. The Chicago win had to boost the confidence level, but at the end of the day, that’s just a good win at home. Beating Seattle on the road is a much bigger statement and might lead to another pile of points in Colorado and a decisive lead in the East.

It’s a tall order for sure, but this would definitely be a good time to show an upstart expansion side what a flagship franchise, with a trophy for nearly every year of existence, can do when they put their minds to it.

Unitedmania Prognostications 2009: Western Conference

Unitedmania’s brainstaff take a stab at how the 2009 MLS season will play out in the West. First a few notes about each team, then our picks as well as a few choice comments and analysis afterward.

Key Moves in Western Conference:
Chivas USA:
Additions – Michael LaHoud, Ante Jazic
Losses – Claudio Suarez, Mendoza, Zotinca
Colorado Rapids:
Additions – Ivan Guerrero, Ty Harden
Losses – Christian Gomez, Mike Petke
FC Dallas:
Additions – Dave van den Bergh, Peri Marosevic
Losses – Adrian Serioux, Dominic Oduro
Houston Dynamo:
Additions – Felix Garcia, Julius James
Losses – Dewayne DeRosario, Nate Jaqua, Patrick Ianni
Los Angeles Galaxy:
Additions – Dema Kovalenko, Todd Dunivant, Jovan Kirovski, Donovan Ricketts, Stefani Miglioranzi, Mike Magee, Omar Gonzalez, AJ Delagarza,
Losses – David Beckham (for 17 games at least), Greg Vanney, Alvaro Pires, Peter Vagenas, Josh Wicks
Real Salt Lake:
Additions – Rafael Cox
Losses – Dema Kovalenko, Fabian Espindola,
San Jose:
Additions – Bobby Convey, Cam Weaver, Pablo Campos, Quincy Amarikwa, Simon Elliott, Chris Leitch, Andrew Weber
Losses – Ronnie O’Brien, Scott Sealy, Francisco Lima, Ned Grabavoy, James Riley
Seattle Sounders:
Additions – Everybody!
Losses – None

Western Conference Picks:

Mike Chris Martin Jimmy
1 Chivas USA Houston Chivas USA Chivas USA
2 Real Salt Lake Real Salt Lake Houston Real Salt Lake
3 San Jose FC Dallas LA Galaxy San Jose
4 Houston LA Galaxy Seattle FC Seattle FC
5 Colorado Chivas USA Real Salt Lake Houston
6 LA Galaxy Seattle FC FC Dallas LA Galaxy
7 FC Dallas San Jose Colorado FC Dallas
8 Seattle FC Colorado San Jose Colorado

A pretty wide range of standings in the Western picks. The only team we all picked for the top four was Houston, but while Chris thinks they can hang on one more year, I have them all the way down to fourth. Also, Chris and I think RSL is in for a good year, but martin has them out of the playoffs. Each of us has an outsider that no one else picked in the top four as well. I have San Jose in the playoff realm, while Chris has Dallas, and Martin has Seattle.

As for the bottom half of the Western table, it’s just as divergent. As mentioned, I have San Jose in third, but both Chris and Martin have them in the relegation zone. Dallas has a range from third to seventh. The Galaxy from third to sixth. Colorado is the only team we all agreed would be in the bottom half, but even then, I have them fifth, while Chris and Martin have them seventh and eighth.

Looks like another year of the wild West.