Until now, Seattle has seen the U.S. Open Cup from only one point of view: looking up.
Tonight, Seattle Sounders FC gets a peek from the other side: a top-level team trying to accommodate a tournament of mostly lower-level sides amid the demands of a Major League Soccer schedule.
However, Sounders personnel from the front office to coach Sigi Schmid to the players say they will be playing to win at 7 p.m., when Real Salt Lake visits Starfire Soccer Stadium in Tukwila for this play-in game of the oldest soccer tournament in the United States.
“It’s an organizational decision ultimately,” general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “Obviously, Sigi is the guy who is going to decide who’s playing. But he knows that we want to win everything that we play in. And coaches are competitive enough that they want to win everything that they play in, as well.”
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Schmid said he respects the U.S. Open Cup – he even played in a couple as a young man in California.
However, he also knows his team is coming off of a 2-0 win over San Jose just three days ago and also needs to prepare for a return to MLS regular-season play Saturday at Chicago. So, he plans to juggle the competing interests by shifting some fresh legs into the lineup.
“You’ve got 24 players on your roster,” Schmid said. “You’ve got 24 professionals, and they all should be able to play. … Any time you’re in a competition, you want to win that competition. But (Open Cup) doesn’t have its own portion of the schedule, so it fits in midweek games. Just as if this was a midweek league game, we’d have to look at shifting our lineup a little bit.”
The competition gets its name because it is open to all levels of soccer in the United States. That mix of amateur, semi-pro and pro teams is part of its appeal – especially for lower-level sides looking to make their mark against the big boys.
However, there is some ambivalence among MLS teams, who have more to lose in terms of prestige, and many of which would rather concentrate on the Supporters Shield, which is awarded for the best regular-season record in MLS.
Local fans got a taste of that in previous seasons when the Sounders of the USL first division often faced MLS teams playing reserves rather than first-rank stars.
Last season, those USL Sounders made a run all the way to the Cup’s semifinals, beating MLS sides Chivas USA and the Kansas City Wizards along the way. That tournament run was highlighted by goalkeeper Chris Eylander’s 453-minute streak without allowing a goal.
Eylander is now Sounders FC’s top reserve goalkeeper behind Kasey Keller. He seems a good bet to start in goal tonight, and he said he doesn’t feel any drop in anticipation for the Open Cup this season.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Eylander said. “These games are an opportunity for some player to play where they wouldn’t normally have inside the normal MLS regular-season games. Our goal is to be champions. I haven’t noticed a distraction mentality from any of the players at all. I think we’re ready to take it head on.”
The winner of tonight’s game will meet the MLS Colorado Rapids for the right to advance to the round of 16.
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808
REAL SALT LAKE VS. SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC
When: 7 p.m., Starfire Sports Stadium, Tukwila. It is a sellout.
What: U.S. Open Cup play-in game. TV: None. Radio: None.
Head-to-head: The Sounders beat RSL, 2-0, in the Major League Soccer regular season. Seattle will visit Salt Lake on Aug. 8.
Notes: The top six teams in the 2008 MLS standings are in the U.S. Open Cup bracket, while the Sounders, RSL and six other teams must qualify. The winner plays the Colorado Rapids, with that winner advancing to the round of 16. … This tournament has rules that differ from MLS games, most notably overtime and possibly a shootout to break a tie. Also, teams are allowed four substitutions, up from three.
Next: 5:30 p.m. Saturday, at Chicago Fire, Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.
Don Ruiz, The News Tribune