LONDON – The 2011 U.S. Open Cup Final is about more than just the century-old trophy on the line. This year's final is also about one team looking to make history, and another team trying to recapture past glory.
The Seattle Sounders will be looking to win their third straight Open Cup title when they face the Chicago Fire tonight, something that hasn't been done in more than 40 years, and something that has never been done by an MLS team.
The Fire will be looking to win an MLS-record fifth Open Cup title, which would mark the club's first trophy in five years, the longest drought in Chicago's impressive but brief 14-year history.
The final looked to be a mismatch when Seattle and Chicago first claimed semifinal victories back on Aug. 30, what with the Fire appearing to have no shot at the playoff race, but a 5-3-1 run has catapulted Chicago back into the playoff picture, and more importantly, the run has instilled some confidence in a team that started the MLS season so poorly at the start.
Credit for the turnaround can be given to an infusion of talent mid-way through the season, with midfielders Sebastian Grazzini and Pavel Pardo joining the club during the summer, but credit also goes to interim head coach Frank Klopas, who inherited a squad that was 1-4-6 under former head coach Carlos de Los Cobos.
"Some late additions have helped our team, players like (Pavel) Pardo, who has brought a lot of experience, and a guy like Grazzini," Klopas said. "We've changed our lineup a bit and now there's a good understanding of how we want to play."
The Fire will be the heavy underdog against a strong Sounders side that currently boasts the second best record in MLS, and that will have the home-field advantage provided by a CenturyLink Field crowd expected to push 35,000.
"The guys know it's an opportunity to do something very special," said Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid. "We always talk about the more special things we can do, the more special it makes the club, but the more special it makes them as individual players."
The current Sounders team is the best squad Seattle has had since joining MLS in 2009, and tonight's Open Cup could be the first of three trophies the group can win in its current cycle. Seattle is a strong MLS Cup contender and has already advanced to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, which take place next winter. Seattle is also alive for the MLS Supporters Shield, though catching the Los Angeles Galaxy will be extremely difficult at this point.
While many other MLS teams failed to take the U.S. Open Cup seriously, fielding weak squads and basically giving up early in the tournament, the Sounders continued their tradition of fielding strong teams and treating the competition like the important tournament it is.
"I'm a big fan of history and tradition and this is a competition that has both within U.S. Soccer," Schmid said. "Our philosophy is even though there are other fish to fry, if you're not going to try and win it, let's not enter it. So whatever we enter we're going to try to win."
The Sounders will be missing playmaker Mauro Rosales, who may be in uniform but won't start due to his recovery from a knee injury, but Seattle still enters tonight's final riding a good run of form led by Colombian striker Fredy Montero, who has picked up the slack since Rosales was sidelined.
With Montero, Alvaro Fernandez and midfield anchor Osvaldo Alonso leading the way, Seattle will be favored against a Chicago side that has played much better soccer in the past two months. Fire forward Dominic Oduro has been one of the most in-form strikers in the league, notching 12 goals for Chicago after being acquired from Houston early in the season.
Oduro's speed should cause problems for the Seattle center back combo of Jeff Parke and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, but the Sounders will look to counter that by dominating play in midfield, where Alonso's presence in the middle is enough to slow down most attacks Seattle faces.
Chicago will also be hoping for an inspired performance from Marco Pappa, who is coming off being named MLS Player of the Week for his hat-trick against Real Salt Lake last Wednesday. If Pappa and Patrick Nyarko can press Seattle's fullbacks and force Fernandez and Lamar Neagle to defend from the wings, Chicago could find enough possession to trouble the Sounders back-line.
Seattle is likely to push the pace early and look to test a strong Chicago defense with its own speedy flank play and Montero's dynamic presence up top. If the Sounders can break through early, and get the packed CenturyLink Field crowd into the game, they stand a good chance of making history and lifting a third straight Open Cup title.
If the Fire can weather that early storm, and start putting the pressure on the home team, the better Chicago's chances will be of springing the upset. With an in-form Oduro, and a strong defense and improving midfield, Chicago will make it a tougher game than people expect, and a strong start could help the Fire add a fifth U.S. Open Cup to their trophy case.