SEATTLE - OCTOBER 04: Members of the Seattle Sounders FC hold US Open Cup trophies after defeating the Chicago Fire 2-0 in the 2011 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Final at CenturyLink Field on October 4, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. The victory gave the Sounders three consecutive Open Cup titles. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
The Seattle Sounders will attempt to become the only team in the history of the US Open Cup to win four consecutive titles, but standing in their way is a Sporting Kansas City team that may provide their toughest ever test in the competition since joining MLS.
The Seattle Sounders current run of three consecutive US Open Cup titles is impressive enough on its own. In the MLS era, no other team has won back-to-back titles, let alone three in a row. The Chicago Fire currently hold the record for most US Open Cups won by an MLS team with four, a number which the Sounders can equal with a win at Livestrong Sporting Park on Wednesday night. To equal the Fire's record of dominance of the competition in only their fourth season of existence as an MLS side would be a tremendous feat, but not the most impressive. Only one other team, Stix, Baer and Fuller, has won three consecutive US Open Cups, with the last victory in their run coming in 1935 (under the name St. Louis Central Breweries.) The Sounders have a chance to accomplish something unique in the entire 98 year history of the tournament. But to do so, they'll have to best one of the emerging powers of the Eastern Conference in their own stadium.
Seattle will enter this game on a high after their 4-0 dismantling of the LA Galaxy on Sunday evening, but that is not in and of itself a benefit; the Sounders started a full-strength lineup against LA, with key players such as Eddie Johnson, Mauro Rosales, Osvaldo Alonso, and Adam Johansson playing a full 90 minutes. Despite a huge league match against San Jose looming on the horizon it's unlikely that Sigi Schmid will hold anything in reserve for the weekend, but it's a bit late to take back the minutes plated on Sunday. That could come into play later on, and it could even hamper Seattle's ability to put their best lineup on the field from the start; Johansson in particular will be a question mark given his relatively recent injury struggles. Consider as well that Brad Evans, Jeff Parke, Alex Caskey, Alonso, and Montero played significant minutes against Caledonia in last week's CONCACAF Champions League group stage match and the fixture congestion looks as though it could be even more of a factor.
Fitness and workload are definitely concerns, but if this team has proven anything these past few years it's that they can handle the strain of multiple competitions. By far the more difficult obstacle to overcome will be the team lining up across from them. Sporting Kansas City isn't a team loaded with big-name players -though Roger Espinoza, Kei Kamara, and Graham Zusi are working to change that- but they are a team without any real weakness; though far from an offensive juggernaut, between Kamara, C.J. Sapong, and Teal Bunbury there is more than enough firepower in the side to provide a consistent threat at goal. The midfield is as good as any in the league, anchored by Espinoza with Zusi pulling the playmaking strings. But it's in defense where Kansas City really shines, their 21 goals allowed equal with Columbus and Chivas USA for the best mark in the league.
A great deal of that defensive prowess can be attributed to Aurelien Collin, however, and due to yellow card accumulation the standout defender will be left out of the team for Wednesday's match. And though Espinoza has returned to Kansas City from London after his Honduras side was eliminated from the Olympics by Brazil, his place in the lineup is far from a certainty. But even without those two players that are so key to Kansas City's ability to hinder the opposition's attacking play, this is a unit that could prove very difficult to break down. The personnel has a lot to with that, but the team's style of play is a major contributing factor in its own right; though Sporting has just 28 goals in 23 MLS games played, their ability to hold the ball and exert a great deal of pressure on the opposition keeps teams from attacking with as much fervor as they otherwise might. For Seattle to unleash the full potential of their attack, they need to trust their defense to handle Kansas City's lightning counter-attacking play and talented strike force.
This game has all of the makings of a classic cup final; two excellent teams that pose intriguing questions from a match up perspective with an utterly compelling narrative. For the first time since 2009, Seattle will not be clear favorites going into the final. For the first time in nearly 70 years, a team will compete for their fourth consecutive US Open Cup title. Between the prestige of winning a cup title and entry into the CONCACAF Champions League, here's a lot on the line for both teams; for the Sounders, you can add vindication to the list as well. This has likely been their hardest road to the US Open Cup final yet, and with the game taking place in Kansas City the degree of difficulty is kicked up even higher. To win this time around would go a long way towards silencing critics that imply that the Sounders have "bought" their Open Cup success. And given the enormity of what Seattle is attempting to accomplish, it could make this one of the best weeks in Seattle Sounders history.