It's always a tempting of fate to imply that a game prior to the final will determine the likely champion in a knockout competition, but let's be honest; with all due respect to the Chicago Fire and Richmond Kickers, FC Dallas and the Seattle Sounders are clearly the two best teams left in the US Open Cup by some margin. While the Kickers finished their season third in USL Pro and the Fire have spent the majority of theirs in the basement of the Eastern Conference, the Sounders and FC Dallas have been fighting their way into the upper tier of the league. Anything can happen in one game, but if the winner of this one doesn't end up lifting the Cup in October it's going to be a pretty huge upset.
FC Dallas is a team Sounders fans should be pretty familiar with by now; a mix of deadly counter-attacking play, control of the game's pace through possession and an excellent defensive organization has made them one of the toughest teams in the league to beat. Indeed, Seattle's win over the Toros just over two weeks ago seemed just short of improbable and gave the entry to the stretch run of the season an entirely different feel. Led by MVP front-runner Brek Shea in the attack and prodigal son George John at the back, Dallas are a team with quality balanced all the way through the lineup. They'll carve up teams with poor defenses and shut down teams with weak attacks, very seldom finding any game out of reach. For a stretch during the middle of the season they looked like the best team in MLS, but some key injuries, the temporary loss of George John (as well as the distraction it caused) a very crowded schedule have led to a bit of a slip in form. August has been a tough month for Dallas in relative terms, while it's been arguably the best in the history of the Sounders.
Still, slightly off form or not (and it's worth noting that even a slipping FC Dallas has won their last two and just prior to the Sounders 1-0 win had become the first MLS team to win a competitive game in Mexico) they're still a very dangerous team. With their next game not coming until September 10th (not counting Saturday's friendly against Tigres at Pizza Hut Park) they're going to be in a position to put out a first-choice lineup and it seems more than reasonable to say that the Dallas team that starts tomorrow evening will be the best team the Sounders have ever faced in the US Open Cup in the MLS era. The Sounders are in a similar position with a long layoff and the ability to start as strong a lineup as they please, but a full-strength Toros side is a huge challenge for any team in the league.
Luckily for Seattle, they've got an ace up their sleeve and it's called Starfire Sports Complex. Since moving to MLS, the Sounders have played 14 US Open Cup and MLS Reserve League games at Starfire. Their record? Not too shabby at 14-0-0 with a +24 goal differential. The Sounders have been quite literally unbeatable at their home-away-from-home in Tukwila, and though we're not dealing with a massive sample of games it's a striking mark. Eventually, someone will beat the Sounders in Tukwila and of all the teams that have paid visit FC Dallas is as likely a contender as any, but until it happens Starfire has to be considered a variable that highly favors the Sounders, perhaps inordinately more so than typical home-field advantage..
When FC Dallas visited the big stadium and left with a 1-0 win back in May, Seattle played as you'd expect from the home side, and though they were kept off the board there was some very poor luck involved. It was much the opposite in Seattle's 1-0 win in Dallas earlier with this month with the Sounders keeping very little possession, hunkering down and surviving the onslaught to emerge with three points. In that sense it will be interesting to see how the Sounders approach this game; a big part of Seattle's current attacking approach involves the wingers cutting inside which necessitates extensive use of the fullbacks to provide width in the attack. That's not at all what we saw in Dallas, where Zach Scott's primary duty (which he performed quite ably) was to keep Brek Shea secure in his back pocket Shea is a dangerous enough player that it's worth making some adjustment to your tactical approach to contain him, but whether the Sounders would feel comfortable with such an approach worth the risk with extra time and penalties a possibility will be the question of the day.
There are likely to be a few changes from the team that beat the Columbus Crew 6-2 on Saturday; aside from the aforementioned Scott, Starfire's narrower pitch might cause Sigi Schmid to favor the size of Nate Jaqua over the speed of Mike Fucito. Despite Lamar Neagle's coming out party against the Crew, Alvaro Fernandez should be well rested and the more likely option to start on the left; that said, Neagle is just short of a guarantee to make an appearance as a change-of-pace option if he does indeed start the day on the bench. Leo Gonzalez seems due for a start (especially given the competition) and Pat Ianni will likely step in for one of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado or Jeff Parke. That said, it will be a pretty major shock if Osvaldo Alonso, Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales don't start and given the domination on display last weekend it would only be a mild surprise if Schmid starts the exact same lineup the Sounders featured against the Crew.
Considering the nature of the competition and the quality of the opponent, this is likely the biggest game ever to take place at Starfire. While the general (if largely unspoken) feeling is that a third-straight US Open Cup win for the Sounders would not be enough in and of itself for the season to be considered a success it would still be an amazing accomplishment, one that hasn't been achieved since Greek American AA won their third straight in 1969. It's somewhat appropriate then that for the Sounders to even get the chance they'll have to beat the strongest opponent they've ever faced in the competition. Games at Starfire are always a pretty fantastic experience; this one has the potential to be very special indeed.