The U.S. Open Cup has meaning and history, only few sports fans know much about it.

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The U.S. Open Cup is the oldest annual national team sports tournament in the United States, but when Sounders FC and D.C. United meet today in the final, it will draw maybe 15,000 fans at a cavernous, old stadium, and be broadcast on a cable channel not available to all Northwest TV viewers.

So, will anyone care? Absolutely.

Don’t tell Sounders FC and D.C. United that this trophy doesn’t mean much. The Major League Soccer teams vie for a title starting at 4:30 p.m. at RFK Stadium in the capital city.

Sounders FC midfielder Osvaldo Alonso was on the Charleston Battery team that lost to D.C. in the final last year, and he’s got revenge on his mind.

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“We’re ready for everything and we’re out to win,” Alonso said. “It would be such a high for the team, and we know we can get it done.”

D.C. United president Kevin Payne kept it more simple: “We want to win anything we enter,” he said.

The U.S. Open Cup is a reward for winning the national championship of American club teams, from amateur level all the way up the professional soccer pyramid to MLS.

D.C. has won it twice. Sounders FC, in its inaugural season, has a chance to put a cup in its empty trophy case in Year One.

“To get to a final in the first year is already an accomplishment,” Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid said. “We don’t want be satisfied with that. If we’re going to go there, we want to come back with the Cup. To be the first expansion team since Chicago to win hardware is definitely a goal that we have.”

Seattle general manager Adrian Hanauer and Payne believe the U.S. Open Cup tournament needs to be better promoted by its governing body, the U.S. Soccer Federation.

“It’s always been a struggle for people to even understand this tournament,” Payne said. “The closest comparison is the U.S. Open golf tournament. U.S. Soccer needs to decide to invest more money.”

As in prize money. Players from the championship team divide up prize money associated with the tournament. There could be more money for organizations, too, if there was a good sponsorship deal worked out by the USSF.

“All the club gets is its share of gate receipts,” Payne said. “Less whatever guarantee made to U.S. Soccer [by the host team].”

For Hanauer, the prize money matters, but the chance to put Sounders FC on an international stage is also motivation to win the Open Cup. If Sounders FC wins, it gains one of four guaranteed spots for MLS teams in the 2010 CONCACAF Champions League, a tournament for the club championship of North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

“That’s one step towards our stated goal of competing in the world club championships, because the winner of the CONCACAF Champions League wins a spot in the World Club Championships,” Hanauer said. “To traditional sports fans, these tournaments are a bit mysterious because it doesn’t happen in baseball, basketball and football. Soccer is just a different beast by tradition and by design. Once you understand it, it adds to the complexity and the strategy of running a sports franchise, and I think it adds to the excitement of being a fan, but you have to put the time in to learn it and understand it before it feels that way.”

The U.S. Open Cup is unique, and not just for being as old as it is. Adult amateur teams can qualify, with names like Lynch’s FC and Aegean Hawks FC. Those teams, and those from the pro lower-echelon United Soccer Leagues, have the chance to make a Cinderella run through the tournament, and upsets such as a USL First or Second Division team taking out an MLS team do happen.

All told, today’s match will be the team’s sixth, in addition to the 30-game MLS regular season that is in its second-to-last month, plus a couple of friendlies against European teams.

“Either we need to make it a major tournament, or we should not play in it,” Hanauer said. “More prize money, more games on TV, more education for the fans.”

José Miguel Romero: 206-464-2409 or jromero@seattletimes.com