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)
A day after 7 of 14 MLS sides fell to lower-division foes, the Seattle Sounders begin their quest towards a fourth straight US Open Cup title with the competition suddenly looking wide open.
This time last week, the big story surrounding the US Open Cup had to do with the controversial practice of MLS clubs paying lower-division teams for the right to home-field advantage. After a chaotic night that saw seven lower-division sides defeat MLS teams -including the defending MLS Cup Champions and the last two US Open Cup runners-up- the big story has shifted just a little bit. It's not necessarily rational, but a game that once seem like a mere formality and a precursor to a 4th-round matchup against the Portland Timbers is now downright terrifying.
Still, in the games that ended with lower-division sides pulling out upsets, there was a common theme; the MLS clubs didn't seem to be taking the competition all that seriously. While it's completely understandable that top-tier teams would expect to be able to rest starters and still advance to the next round, there's a difference between playing a rotation and playing a full reserve side. If history is any indication, the Sounders aren't going to fall into a similar trap. It's reasonable to think that Seattle will give significant minutes to a few players that don't tend to see them, they aren't going to put a lineup on the field that would look all that out of place against MLS competition. It's anyone's guess what that final product will look like, but it's safe to say that at least one or two of the players typically considered to be a part of Sounders' core won't be in the starting XI.
Ultimately, that's probably the correct decision. Seattle has a great deal of strength in depth, and with more than a few key players (most notably Mauro Rosales) carrying nagging injuries, the decision to place some trust on the back-end of the roster becomes far easier. And though the lower divisions did have a night to remember on Tuesday, a series of performances that may well indicate that the separation between the tiers is not as extreme as some might previously have thought, it's important to remember that there legitimately is a big difference in the level of quality between MLS and NASL. Not so big that it can't be overcome over the course of a single game, but substantial nonetheless.
More directly applicable, not only do the Silverbacks reside in a tier below the Sounders, they're an actively bad team even at that level. Atlanta is 0-5-4 in league play, good enough for last place in NASL (though it's worth pointing out that another team with the same record and just a one goal difference advantage over the Silverbacks knocked LA Galaxy out of the tournament on Tuesday.) Atlanta's only win on the season was last week's 1-0 2nd round US Open Cup victory over the Georgia Revolution, an amateur team playing two levels below the Silverbacks. Though Atlanta's attack has been far from stellar, their downfall has been on the defensive side of things; through 9 league games, the Silverbacks have allowed 19 goals. Even a less-than-full-strength Sounders attack should be able to take advantage of Atlanta's shortcomings in that phase of the game, and with Osvaldo Alonso and at least 1/2 of Seattle's regular defensive rotation likely to be on the pitch, it's going to take quite the spirited performance from the visitors to overcome the sheer gap in quality between the two sides.
Ultimately, while Tuesday was clearly a night to remember for lower-division soccer in the US (and most likely a net benefit to the game and to the US Open Cup) it's predictive value is most likely nil. Nothing that happened in any of the other third-round games should have much impact on how anyone feels going into Seattle's third-round game. The Sounders are a far better team from top to bottom, and to lose to any NASL team-especially a winless, bottom-of-the-standings NASL team- would be an enormous disappointment. But that doesn't mean that what went down on Tuesday night making folks just a wee bit edgy isn't completely understandable.