U.S. Open Cup
Seattle, Chicago battle for U.S. soccer's other prize
A win by either team sets a record in long-standing tournament
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final will be played Tuesday night between the Chicago Fire and Seattle Sounders FC.
This isn't the Major League Soccer championship. So, what exactly is it?
The U.S. Open Cup is a tournament open to all U.S. men's soccer teams that has been played since 1915. It started as the National Challenge Cup and was renamed shortly afterward.
The cup is now named for Lamar Hunt. Hunt is known to many sports fans as an owner in the NFL, but he has also owned several teams in Major League Soccer and the North American Soccer League during its 1970's heyday.
By the way, when they say "open to all U.S. men's teams," they mean all are eligible to play—professional, semi-professional and amateur.
Soccer fans hate it when analogies are drawn with other sports, but imagine for a moment that the Minnesota Twins are fighting for a spot in the pennant race. They take a short break from their regular Major League Baseball schedule to fly down to Asheville to play against the Tourists for some other championship unrelated to the World Series.
It is not something that happens in most American sports, but it is exactly what happens in soccer. Tournaments like this are common particularly in European countries, where teams can "win the league," "win the cup" or manage to do both. The U.S. Open Cup most closely resembles England's FA Cup, and boosters of the U.S. version tout it as the second-oldest contest next to the FA Cup.
The tournament is single elimination. That, combined with the low scores typical of a soccer match, can mean a lower division team can knock out a more highly touted side.
"On any given day the gap isn't wide," says Rick Schantz, FC Tucson's coach and a participant in in Open Cup contests when he played for the Tucson Amigos. "Some of these (lower level) players are future draft choices," he added.
"You get a goal keeper that plays out of his mind and a forward who's lucky, anything can happen," he noted.
That was the experience of former FC Tucson player Jacobi Goodfellow.
In 2003, Goodfellow played for the third division Wilmington (N.C.) Hammerheads. The team made it through the early rounds and was going to face the Dallas Burn (now known as FC Dallas).
That year, Dallas included U.S. national teamer Chad Deering, goal scoring ace Jason Kreis and Colombian standout Óscar Pareja.
Dallas managed to get on the board early with a ninth-minute goal from future U.S. national team player Eddie Johnson. But the Hammerheads evened up the score in the first half, and were up 2-1 by early in the second half.
Goodfellow admits that Dallas didn't take the team seriously at first.
"They only had half their starters," he said.
Four of their regular starters, including Kreis, were brought in after Dallas was down in an attempt to get back in the game.
It did no good: the Hammerheads could smell the win like a shark smells blood in water. A young English player named Glenn Murray scored two more and Wilmington ended the match up 4-1 in what was regarded as the biggest upset in that year's tournament.
Goodfellow enjoyed the fan support in Wilmington and saw the win as showing something to their fans.
"They supported us, and we proved we can hang with the next level," he said.
Goodfellow notes that he enjoyed meeting Kreis and Johnson at the game.
"Me and Eddie are still friends today."
FC Tucson beats the Galaxy?
FC Tucson didn't participate in the 2011 version of the tournament, but with the expected move to the Premier Development League, they will be playing in qualifiers for the 2012 contest. Schantz says that the "David and Goliath" aspect of the tournament is appealing to players for teams like FC Tucson.
Schantz imagined the aftermath of a big win for FC Tucson next year: "They could always say, 'I played for FC Tucson when we beat the LA Galaxy in the Open Cup.' "
He also noted that participating in a more organized league and the Open Cup gives his players something to shoot for.
"I'm excited for the opportunity for the games to mean something. They bought into the shirt and represented the community and now they can play for a trophy."
There are also more practical advantages. Schantz played in the tournament before and after MLS teams participated. When MLS got in, he looked at it as a way of moving up the pro-soccer ladder.
Back when he was a player, it was a chance to be seen by coaches of MLS teams.
"My thought was, if I don't get drafted, this is my time to shine," he said.
It likely will be a consideration for many of the college-age players who will be playing for FC Tucson.
As a part-owner of the team, he has another consideration.
"If we get a home game with FC Dallas or Columbus Crew, we make a lot of money."
The Bethlehem (Pa.) Globe, on May 8, 1916 —the second year of the tournament when it was still called the National Challenge Cup — reported:
The Bethlehem Soccer team retained the United States championship in Pawtucket, R.I., Saturday afternoon by defeating Fall River Rovers 1-0. The only point in the final round of the National Soccer Challenge Cup tie competition in which eighty-eight teams were entered was made by Fleming on a penalty kick in the last few minutes of the second half.
Ten thousand and fans saw the old country cracks from the Bethlehem Steel Works take the Massachusetts men in tow.
Yes, you read that right. There were 10,000 people who showed up for a soccer match in 1916. A soccer match in Pawtucket, of all places.
The crowd was so rabid and enthusiastic that afternoon that Steel players had to protect the referee from attacking Fall River fans after the final whistle was blown. The police were even called.
Attendance and enthusiasm has waned in the intervening 95 years, in large part because interest in professional soccer has been somewhere between slight and nonexistent for much of that time.
Chicago Fire player-turned-attorney and broadcaster Evan Whitfield said small crowds for Open Cup matches can — to paraphrase David St. Hubbins — diminish the immensity of the game.
Glendale-born Whitfield, who played for the 1997 Tucson Amigos, said the 2003 edition of the final — one of two wins for the Fire teams he played for — was played on a Wednesday night and had only 5,183 in attendance. Not big numbers to fill cavernous Giants Stadium.
"It didn't feel like a cup final."
He called the atmosphere "dismal," but his father flew out to see the match. "It was almost like playing back in Arizona because I could hear my dad in the crowd."
Whitfield played a big part in Chicago's win that year. He delivered the ball to Damani Ralph who was able to slip it past MetroStars keeper Jonny Walker for the only goal of the match.
Because of the laid-back nature of the match, Whitfield's dad made it into the locker room for the post game celebration.
It was the second Open Cup trophy for Whitfield. He also played in Chicago's victory over Miami Fusion FC in 2000. It was a memorable match for him because Miami's Pablo Mastroeni also grew up in Glendale and played on youth teams and the Amigos with Whitfield.
Expect Tuesday's contest to be much better attended. Whitfield said Seattle has already built a strong fan base and that regularly fills their stadium, even for non-league and midweek games.
"The difference this year is where the game is being held," he said.
This year, the final is well on its way to being the best-attended Open Cup match history. Last year, 31,311 fans saw Seattle beat the Columbus Crew. As of last week, team officials claim to have already sold 30,000 tickets.
And the winner will be...
The contest isn't organized by Major League Soccer, but by the U.S. Soccer Federation. Still, MLS Vice-President Nelson Rodriguez refused to predict a winner at an appearance in Tucson on Thursday.
"The Fire is looking hot right now, it's a tournament that they've won in the past," he said. "Seattle is looking to do something that I think has only been done one other time. It will be exciting and interesting for the fans."
Rodriguez touches on an angle that comes up in many stories about the Cup final — both teams are looking to make history.
Seattle will be going for their third win in a row. A "threepeat" is something that has only been accomplished by two other teams: the semi-professional sides Greek American AA and the Philadelphia Ukranians.
It also would mean Seattle will have won this tournament in every year of its MLS existence.
A victory by Chicago, on the other hand, will give them a fifth trophy and put them in the company of one of two teams that dominated American soccer in its first bout of professionalism in the 1910s and 1920s: Bethlehem Steel.
Rodriguez has to be neutral, but Whitfield does not. He admits that it will be a tough game for his boys from Chicago.
"On paper, Seattle should win," he said.
He's right, Seattle has been on quite a tear this season. The team is currently seven points behind the league leading Los Angeles Galaxy.
The fact that they've gone this far in the Open Cup and are still in contention in the Champions League while their leading scorer and assist man, Steve Zakuani, has been out injured for most of the season, is a tribute to their depth and stamina.
"The Fire have a good chance, they are undefeated in five of the last six," Whitfield says.
This isn't just the word of a man cheering for his adopted hometown. He notes that defenses have been unable to deal with Chicago's two Ghanaian forwards, Dominic Oduro and Patrick Nyarko.
"They are the two fastest guys in the league."
Oduro is on quite a hot streak, scoring twelve goals in league play this season. Nyarko has only scored once, but has notched 8 assists.
Who will come out on top? It's the Open Cup. Your guess is as good as mine.