While the governing soccer body said time and money were against Seattle Sounders FC playing at home for its first major trophy, the roots of rivalry seemed to grow deeper between the competitors on the eve of the U.S. Open Cup final.
Defending champion D.C. United will play host today (4:30 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel) at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., where it is averaging half (15,887) the Sounders’ MLS-leading 30,587 fans per game.
“It’s pretty simple,” U.S. Soccer Federation communications manager Neil Buethe said of the bids. “The first (factor) was that D.C.’s bid was better financially. But we also looked at other aspects, and one of them was the timing of the game. Due to timing of the game that was in (Seattle’s bid) there could potentially be TV issues if it’s earlier in the day.”
The bid process has rankled Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer since July, when D.C. Untied was chosen as host team.
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His complaints have in turn rankled DCU president Kevin Payne, who was quick to defend his team and its stadium, telling the D.C. media that he took it as an insult “for this first-year team (the Sounders) to come in and say some unfortunate things.”
Hanauer said he was “skeptical of the process,” which the federation keeps mostly secret.
Buethe’s explanation, which included field conditions, did little to ease Hanauer’s concerns.
Hanauer said he had assurances that Fox Soccer Channel had approved the afternoon kickoff he proposed for Qwest. He said he would have sought a later kickoff if he had known time had been identified as a problem.
Of the fields, Buethe said: “Obviously, natural grass is preferred. Not that that cancels out a team like Seattle that doesn’t play on natural grass, but it is something that is considered. And then obviously things like football lines and how it looks on TV is also taken into consideration.”
In a follow-up call, Buethe acknowledged the issue shouldn’t favor either side, since neither surface has visible football lines during soccer matches.
Finally, Hanauer said financial terms of the bids can be subjective because bids often combine guaranteed minimums with a percentage of the take, which can’t be known in advance.
“That circles back to my earlier comments about transparency,” Hanauer said. “I don’t understand why they couldn’t release the bids. Then everybody could see why one was chosen over another. … I think it would be nice if they would … publish the full criteria by which they make their decision. I’m still not sure that I understand it.”
Hanauer and Payne have said recently that there is no personal animosity. However, both sides agree that the flair-up has added spice to the biggest game in the Sounders’ short history.
“I think actually that our league in general needs more rivalries, needs more passion at the organizational level,” Payne said. “So if this creates a little more of an annual rivalry between the two Washingtons, I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s very good for our league. We have too many games that nobody gets excited about.”
United has used the dispute as part of an advertising campaign, challenging D.C. fans to turn out in numbers that will mute the comparisons to the 30,000 or more Hanauer projected this game would have drawn Seattle.
Payne said around 14,000 tickets had been sold as of Monday afternoon.
“I think we’ll be somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000,” he said. “For this tournament, that’s pretty good on a Wednesday night. … I do think there will be some creative and rather rude ways of welcoming in the Sounders.”
As for Hanauer, he was ready to look forward.
“For me, it’s water under the bridge,” he said. “I just hope it’s a learning moment for all of us where we can work together to do what’s right for the tournament. D.C. United will do a great job; they’ll be great hosts.”
On the pitch, United will look to add to its MLS-high 12 major trophies, while Seattle will aim for its first.
“I know there has been a lot of interesting talk in the press from what’s gone on with Adrian,” Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller said.
“I just hope that it is a great atmosphere and there is a good crowd there and we perform the way we are capable of performing. … I’ve been fortunate to be in some tough finals, and nothing beats it. So, hopefully we could perform on the day and get back to the form of what we expect from ourselves.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808
SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC AT D.C. UNITED
Kickoff: 4:30 p.m., RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C., Fox Soccer Channel.
Radio: 1210-AM (Spanish broadcast only).
Head-to-head: The teams played to a 3-3 draw at Qwest Field on June 16, when Seattle gave up a two-goal second-half lead.
U.S Open Cup: This is the oldest soccer tournament in the United States, created in 1914 as the National Challenge Cup. Similar to England’s famed FA Cup, it is open to professional and amateur clubs through all levels of the United States Soccer Federation. … The Sounders reached the final with wins over Real Salt Lake, Colorado, USL-1 Portland, Kansas City and Houston. United defeated FC Dallas, New York Red Bulls, USL-2 Ocean City, USL-2 Harrisburg and USL-1 Rochester. … If the game is tied at the end of regulation, there will be 30 minutes of overtime. If the tie remains, the winner will be determined by penalty kicks.
Notes: Seattle is playing for its first trophy in club history. United has more trophies than any other MLS team: five MLS Cups, four Supporters Shields, one InterAmerican Cup and two U.S. Open Cups. DCU is the defending Open Cup champion. … Seattle defenders Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (disciplinary suspension) and Tyrone Marshall (hamstring) are out, defender Taylor Graham (ankle) is questionable, midfielders Brad Evans (shin) and Stephen King (hamstring) are probable. … This is United’s ninth match in 32 days, a mix of MLS, Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League games.
Next: 4:30 p.m. Sept. 12, Seattle returns to league play back at RFK against D.C. United.
Don Ruiz, The News Tribune