TUKWILA — MLS is on a two-week FIFA international break and the Sounders are … still playing?
For the casual soccer fan, this can be a confusing time. There’s a prestigious, century-old tournament match happening Wednesday at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, but only a handful of players from the Sounders’ preferred starting 11 are available.
It’s the U.S. Open Cup, which began in 1913 as the National Challenge Cup and awarded its first champion in 1914. Seattle will host rival Portland in a loser-out, fourth-round match at 7:30 p.m. (full schedule here).
Seattle is currently missing 10 first-team players due to international call-ups for either training camps or competitions like the CONCACAF Gold Cup and Copa America. Mix in the Women’s World Cup happening in France and this week is a soccer feast.
“It’s frustrating,” said Kasey Keller, former Sounders and U.S. goalkeeper, of the scheduling. “I don’t know if you can give it the utmost seriousness as you would the league championship. But if you gave a little bit more stature, it would continue to grow and really be a cool tournament. It still is, but it could generate even more buzz.”
The Open Cup is the second-oldest continuously run tournament in the world. It mimics the Football Association Cup in England, awarded by a soccer organization that began when the U.S. was in the grips of the Civil War, the first FA Cup champion coming in 1872.
Any English men’s club from any level can enter. The English Premier League’s Manchester City topped a field of 736 teams for the 2019 FA title.
There were 84 teams at the beginning of this year’s U.S. Open Cup in May. All 21 MLS clubs enter in the fourth round. And of the 16 matches played Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 are in line with the spirit of the Open Cup, where a lower level squad is playing an MLS team.
The Houston Dynamo is the defending champion, while California’s Orange County FC is the sole remaining amateur club.
A winner will be crowned in August and awarded $300,000 plus a berth in the 2020 CONCACAF Champions League. The runner-up earns $100,000, and the team that advances the furthest from each lower division is given $25,000.
With Keller in goal, Seattle became one of four clubs to clinch a U.S. Open Cup threepeat from 2009-11. The Sounders won their fourth Open Cup in 2014 and haven’t been to the final since then as the club shifted its focus to drawing more top talent to win an MLS title.
“The Open Cup was a good springboard for the launch of this franchise in MLS,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, who’s played and coached in the Open Cup. “It allowed us to be relevant early.”
Keller agreed, adding the club’s current MLS draw of 30,000-plus fans per game at CenturyLink Field is due in part to the early titles. It’s one of his favorite memories in telling organizers they missed an opportunity by not having Seattle host the Open Cup final in the team’s inaugural 2009 MLS season.
That year, the Sounders defeated D.C. United, 2-1, before 17,329 fans at RFK Stadium. Seattle hosted the following season and beat the Columbus Crew, 2-1, before 31,311 fans at then-Qwest Field.
Cheney Stadium is the Tacoma Defiance and Reign’s home field. Wednesday’s match is a first for the Sounders in the approximate 7,000-seat facility, but the club is expecting a sellout.
“Attendance didn’t start at 40,000. We grew it to 40,000 because of occasions like that Open Cup final,” Keller said. “Those are things that a lot of the guys in those early days take pride in and responsibility. The last thing we wanted to do was complain that we should be hosting a tournament and get the opportunity and fall flat. … No, we weren’t going to do that.”
Wednesday’s match is the eighth between the Sounders and Timbers in the U.S. Open Cup. Seattle is 5-2 against Portland since 2005, when the clubs first met in the competition.
The Timbers will be without four players due to call-ups but enter with more momentum, having won twice in their past five MLS matches. The Sounders closed league play on a three-game losing streak.
“No matter who’s playing for their team, it’s going to be a big game, and I’m sure the crowd will be into it,” Sounders midfielder Harry Shipp said. “And it’s a chance to start fresh, start something new and not worry about the recent slide we’ve been on.
“There’s an expectation going into it that you’re going to go far. Every team approaches it differently, some kind of take it as a way to rest and not necessarily try 100 percent. (Seattle) is not like that. No matter who’s playing, there’s an expectation to go out and win.”