D.C. United and Seattle Sounders Add Some Drama to the U.S. Open Cup Final

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Before the sideshows began, the U.S. Open Cup offered a compelling matchup for this year's championship game: D.C. United, attempting to become the first repeat winner of the backwater tournament in 26 years, facing an expansion club that has enjoyed massive success on and off the field in its maiden MLS season.

But then a Seattle Sounders executive grumbled about RFK Stadium being chosen as the site for Wednesday night's final . . . and then United's president responded with critical comments about his counterpart . . . and then D.C. bought full-page newspaper ads to rally support . . . and then fans for each side began sniping at each other on Internet message boards . . . and then United began a trophy tour to local watering holes . . . and then the Sounders encouraged supporters to travel cross-country to attend the game.

And before you knew it, the Open Cup final, a two-hour diversion on the American soccer calendar, was transformed into a contentious event for perhaps one of the few times in its 95-year history.

"Maybe," United President Kevin Payne said, "we will start to turn this competition into something people can really sink their teeth into."

The Open Cup has a charming quality: Amateur and lower-division clubs are entered in the same competition as MLS teams and, with a few victories, could end up facing a top-tier representative in later rounds. It is modeled after the English FA Cup, which has been contested since 1872.

Long before MLS was launched 13 years ago, the Open Cup featured high-powered teams representing industry or immigrant communities, such as Bethlehem Steel, Todd Shipyards and the New York Greek Americans.

But for some MLS teams, the Open Cup hasn't been worth the bother -- a tournament that runs concurrent with the league schedule, taxes rosters that aren't built for multiple games per week, and often involves road games on unsuitable fields or home matches that attract so little interest, they are staged at small venues.

Besides the $100,000 grand prize, another incentive was added last year: The winner was to earn an automatic berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, which features clubs from North and Central America and the Caribbean. (The ticket to next year's Champions League for the United-Sounders winner is pending approval.)

Amid modest fanfare, United won the title in 1996 and 2008. Last year's championship game against second-division Charleston (S.C.) was played in front of 8,212 at RFK -- far less than the club's average attendance in the regular season but a respectable showing for the Open Cup.

But Seattle's entry into MLS -- and the Open Cup -- changed everything. Averaging 30,587 for league home games, the Sounders are on pace to set the league record for single-season ticket sales. When they advanced to the Open Cup semifinals, club officials confidently bid to host the championship match.

The procedure is kept private by the U.S. Soccer Federation, which oversees the tournament, and when United was awarded the game, Sounders General Manager Adrian Hanauer screamed foul, saying he was "skeptical of the process" and questioned whether playing in front of 10,000 fans in Washington would help raise the Open Cup's profile.

Payne fired back, furious that Hanauer would imply that the selection process wasn't fair. He also said that "it's really unseemly for Seattle to suddenly show up in MLS and everything should be handed to them."

Seattle probably would have won the bid, except scheduling issues meant it would have had to play the game Tuesday at 1 p.m.

United seized the marketing moment, unveiling an expensive ad campaign. In an open letter that appeared in a full-page ad, Payne appealed to casual fans to support a Washington team competing for a championship. Players from other local pro teams contributed support through video pitches.

Although the efforts have yielded modest results (12,000 advance tickets sold), attendance might double last year's turnout. The biggest crowd for the final since 1996 was 19,146 in Chicago nine years ago.

United's players, meantime, have avoided the fray but embraced the hype. "We don't get involved in that stuff," midfielder Ben Olsen said. But "I love the Open Cup. I think it's a great tournament and I welcome anything that brings it more attention."

United Notes: Defender Julius James and midfielder Tiyi Shipalane are ineligible because they appeared in the tournament with other teams before joining United. . . .

Before the match, United will formally announce the acquisition of youth academy goalkeeper Bill Hamid, 18, the first homegrown signing in club history.

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