Every year there’s fresh talk of what needs to be done to save the US Open Cup and raise its profile once and for all. Title sponsor? Television deal? Scheduling changes?
But what if the saviors of the oldest cup competition in America have been sitting under our noses the entire time: the Seattle Sounders.
Now with more clubs than ever, there is a healthy diversity of thought in the MLS ranks. NY Red Bulls manager Hans Backe says that the Supporters’ Shield is priority, while Real Salt Lake shuffles its league schedule to fully concentrate on the CONCACAF Champions League.
Ever since their first season in MLS, the Seattle Sounders have held true to their belief that the US Open Cup is on par with the other trophies up for grabs. It’s not just an excuse to wear their electricity yellow third kits.
And the club is a real life example of what the tournament can do for an organization that decides to take it seriously. The Sounders have given fans memorable events, including sellouts at Starfire and more than 31,000 fans that filled Qwest Field for the dramatic 2010 final against Columbus.
[inline_node:319090] The Open Cup titles have also led to Seattle’s participation in the CONCACAF Champions League, where the $100,000 USOC prize money could easily turn into $1 million with a berth at the FIFA Club World Cup. The Sounders could not have entered the continental championship through any other door.
More importantly, the silverware has boosted the self-image of a team that has suffered two consecutive disheartening playoff eliminations. But the players and their fans know they have championship mettle. They have tasted what it’s like to be the last team standing.
Now the Sounders’ quest for a third straight U.S. Open Cup trophy becomes one of the main storylines of the 2011 soccer season, as they seek to become the first side in over 40 years to accomplish the three-peat. We could have been talking about four in a row had they not lost out on penalty kicks in the 2008 USOC semifinals.
As automatic qualifiers to the USOC's third round in 2011, Seattle only needs to win four matches to realize history. However, it will still take a considerable effort for them to accomplish the feat this year.
This year U.S. Open Cup matches will all take place on Tuesdays without exception: June 28 (third round), July 12 (quarterfinals), August 30 (semifinals) and October 4 (final). The problem is that the Sounders have a league match on the preceding Sunday for those first two matches.
There will also be heavy schedule congestion surrounding a potential semifinal and final appearance. Those matches will follow consecutive midweek appointments in the 2011-’12 CONCACAF Champions League group stage if Seattle can advance out of the preliminaries.
[inline_node:327445]So manager Sigi Schmid and the Sounders will get a chance to show everyone just how high the USOC really ranks, especially when it comes to how he shuffles his squad for the MLS matches on June 26 (vs. New England) and July 10 (at Portland).
The Open Cup was clearly top of mind for Schmid during this offseason. Through trades, draft picks and trialists, the Sounders are shaping up to be arguably the deepest MLS team this year. The SuperDraft, with a league-high five selections, proved especially productive in augmenting the squad with quality as well as quantity.
And so we’ll be paying close attention whether all this importance that the Sounders have lent the Open Cup finally becomes contagious. After all, half the US-based clubs in MLS have never even won it.
Renowned Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho earlier this season took Real Madrid to task for failing to win Spain’s domestic cup competition in 17 years. He did something about it and los merengues have reached the final this season.
The Copa del Rey is usually an afterthought in Spain. But because Mourinho cared, La Liga fans have an epic Real Madrid vs. Barcelona final showdown.
So maybe there's no need for a magic marketing wand to be waved at the US Open Cup. Just the fact that Seattle cares may prove more than enough.