In soccer, trophies are everything and the Philadelphia Union, in only their 5th year in the MLS, take a crack at winning their first on Tuesday night at PPL Park (7:30 p.m., TCN). For the first time, the Union has battled their way to the championship match of the annual Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a century-old tournament that spans the continent, includes competitors from all ranks of stateside soccer, but almost always ends-up with somebody from the MLS hoisting a really nifty, silver goblet.
Since June, the Union has been slipping Cup games in between its regular league matches and friendlies, out-dueling all comers in the win-or-go-home series, from smaller clubs in Harrisburg and New York to home league rivals New England and Dallas. Their reward: a championship tilt against a star-studded Seattle Sounders squad who’s looked like the cream of the crop in the MLS this year and currently resides atop the Western Conference with a league-best 54 points.
But the Open Cup has a funny way of evening the pitch. Few thought DC United had a chance last year when it managed to ignore its historically-horrendous MLS regular season performance (DC finished with a woeful 16 points in league play) and turn themselves into a defensive dynamo in cup matches. They beat Real Salt Lake 1-0 for the title and actually had a tougher road than the Union had this season as all four of DC’s tournament draws were MLS opponents (including Philadelphia in Round 1).
This is the Open Cup’s 101st year. Originally known as the National Challenge Cup, its first champion was Brooklyn Field Club in 1914. A local team attached to Bethlehem Steel made some noise up until 1919, winning a record 5 titles in what’s regarded as the “pre-modern” era. In fact, the Union’s third kit with the black jersey and white shorts pays homage to those teams. But in the modern era, beginning in the late 1990s—when the tournament was renamed for sports entrepreneur and major U.S. soccer patron Lamar Hunt—the creation of the MLS and its penchant for attracting bigger stars turned the Cup run into an affair dominated by the big league. MLS members are not required to enter the tournament until the fourth round, more than a month after lesser-known competitors start slugging it out, and the MLS reps have won the tournament 17 times since 1998.
However, poor odds have not dampened enthusiasm among United States soccer’s lower-tiers. This year’s championship game will be the tourney’s 79th contest. Everyone from The Vermont Voltage and the L.A. Missioneros to the Dayton Dutch Lions and Baltimore Bohemians have taken part, representing multiple regional leagues.
AN OPPORTUNITY UNIQUE TO SOCCER
Of course, the larger prestige of winning the MLS Cup begs the question, “Why would a major league squad care about this tournament?” After all, the Cup matches do not always come-up at the most opportune times. For the Union, for example, Tuesday’s end game is sandwiched between two important stretch-run league matches with the club teetering on the edge of a play-off spot. There are several answers. Prestige is part of it. The more trophies you can cram into the trophy case, the better you look to your fans, the league and the world. Secondly, the Open Cup winner gets a shot at competing on an even bigger stage next year in the CONCACAF tournament, involving clubs from North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Again, there’s another shot there at a trophy (not to mention some seasoning against international competition).
But the more basic incentive is one as old as civilization: money. The Union have already earned a prize by virtue of playing in the final game (last year, that meant about $60,000). If they win it all, though, the reward jumps to something in the neighborhood of $250,000. A share of that might not mean much to Maurice Edu, but if you’re, say, Aaron Wheeler or Zach Pfeffer? It’s a big bonus.
An indication of just how highly Philadelphia values this championship chance was evident when the opening line-ups were posted for last Saturday’s important MLS match against New York. Manager Jim Curtin held a number of stars out, obviously worried about injuries and fatigue heading into Tuesday’s tilt. In the end, he wound-up having to insert most of them in the second half to help salvage a 2-2 draw. But as important as every point is in the MLS season’s waning weeks, the truth is, the U.S. Open Cup Match represents a far better chance at a trophy for Philadelphia than the MLS Cup run, even if the club finishes strong and enters the league play-offs as a team on a roll. They would still have to plow through an extremely-tough post-season field to win it all. To win the Open Cup, they need only plow through one extremely tough opponent.
Enter Seattle, no stranger to Open Cup play. Prior to last year, the Sounders had appeared in four straight Cup finals and won three of them—and this was before superstar forward Clint Dempsey was on board and fully healthy. Dempsey may be the best player in the MLS. If he isn’t, he certainly has the best pedigree. The striker-turned-Gamestop-spokesman, who starred as Captain of the U.S. National Team at this year’s World Cup in Brazil, also has 7 years of successfully English Premier League play under his cleats. If the Union are going to hoist silver on Tuesday night, they must obviously control this guy. But they better watch-out for “the other guy”, forward Kenny Cooper, who ranks near the top of multiple MLS offensive categories over the past several years and currently sits in the top ten in goals scored among active players. He may only have 9 goals in league play over the last couple of seasons after netting 18 for New York in 2012, but Cooper has been dynamite in the Open Cup. He has 13 goals in the tournament; that puts him second on the modern-era U.S. Cup scoring list. After Cooper, the Union will also have to keep an eye on the “other” other guy, Obafemi Martins, who leads Seattle with 13 scores. Then, there’s 6-goal scorer Lamar Neagle. I could go on, but the basic idea is that Seattle can beat you in about a dozen different ways and enters the Cup final as a clear favorite over Philadelphia.
NOT SO FAST, MSSR.
But this is not exactly the David-versus-Goliath match we had last year with upstart DC United slinging stones. It’s worth noting that Sebastien Le Toux is also a guy who loves Cup play; in fact, he’s just ahead of Cooper on that modern era scoring list with 14 (the top spot). A change of rules within U.S. Soccer may also make a difference for Philadelphia. The venue for the final is now determined by a coin toss, which the Union obviously won. Gone are the days when clubs made sealed bids to win home field advantage (which Seattle did repeatedly in prior years). The Sounders may be the favorites, but they’ll have to win on foreign soil this time and Philadelphia has been defending their home turf well over the last month or so. Add to that Philadelphia’s semi-rested stars (Seattle started all their top guns but Cooper, by the way, in its 3-2 win over Portland on Friday night—most played the full 90) and the way the Union has been gelling for months and it would hardly be a shock if the underdog took this match for the second the second year in-a-row.
In case you’re interested, as of this writing, there are still decent seats available for the Championship match on the Union’s website—and not too expensive. The weather looks nice: clear skies, not too windy, temperature during the match between 72-67.