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USL presence adds spice to Open Cup

Evocative story lines will frame the night as the four remaining U.S. Open Cup survivors clash in a pair of Tuesday semifinals along the East Coast. Seattle visits Charleston in an all-USL engagement, while New England visits D.C. United at RFK. With a pair of USL sides meeting, one is guaranteed a spot in the September final of the 95-year-old-tournament, officially named the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. So the night will finish with one MLS side matched against a USL side, the first Open Cup final since 1999 to pit clubs from the sibling associations -- and surely a championship more interesting than a third or fourth meeting this year of the same old Major League Soccer clubs. Only twice since domestic soccer's top flight launched in 1996 has the final not been an all-MLS affair; the USL's Rochester Rhinos fell to D.C. United in 1996, and then defeated Colorado in 1999. So it's down to the Seattle Sounders, playing their final USL campaign before joining MLS next year, and the Charleston Battery to wrestle for a shot at taking down a Major League Soccer foe. It will take a gritty effort from both clubs, as each will have played two matches in the preceding five days. But that's not the only intriguing subplot. For New England, having just claimed a SuperLiga crown, fans, players and club administrators can now begin to ponder the dreamy possibilities of a truly special year. Four trophies are within reach for Steve Nicol's surging squad, with just one loss in all competitions (an 11-1-5 record) in the past three months. The Revs cracked Houston earlier this week for SuperLiga spoils and now have designs on the Open Cup, MLS Cup and CONCACAF Champions League title.

U.S. Open Cup schedule
Tuesday
D.C. United vs. New England
RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
7:30 p.m. ET

Charleston vs. Seattle
Blackbaud Stadium, Charleston, S.C.
7:30 p.m. ET

Plus, New England is currently defending the Open Cup crown, with Tuesday's big test set for RFK Stadium -- assuming the creaking facility can keep from crumbling in the interim. Both USL clubs must overcome some fairly significant travel hassles. Yes, Charleston gets the game at home -- at its splendid little 5,000-seat Blackbaud Stadium, no less. But it's the days ahead of Tuesday's clash that could prove troubling. The Battery were in Minnesota on Thursday night, where they lost to the Thunder in a USL match but remained in a first-place tie. Friday brought a flight to Portland for a Saturday night match. Then on Sunday, players will be right back on a jet for the cross-country flight back to South Carolina. Battery manager Mike Anhaeuser tried to keep his club focused on the weekend league matches but copped to the difficulty, even for him. "I'm sure in back of the players' minds, and in the back of my mind, we're thinking about the game on Tuesday, because it is such a big game for the club and for the whole community." They'll get no sympathy from Seattle. The Sounders defeated West Coast rival Portland in a game packed with emotion Thursday. They play at Minnesota on Sunday before traveling the next day to Charleston. Both clubs are eager to protect their USL positioning. Seattle currently sits fourth in the 11-team table, but just two points behind the leaders. Still, both managers said they will rest starters this weekend, possibly even sending some on to Charleston early. The USL sides have met three times this year in league play. Seattle managed a 1-1 draw and fell 1-0 at Blackbaud, but did prevail by a 1-0 margin as the teams met out West. The final could be at one of three venues. Contingent on Tuesday's results, it breaks down like this: United would play at Seattle's Qwest Field on Sept. 3; Charleston would play at United Sept. 3; New England would play at Seattle on Sept. 15; or New England would play at Charleston on Sept. 22. Both USL clubs have played the giant-killers -- such as they are in MLS -- by eliminating clubs from the more highly regarded big brother league. Seattle highlighted the third round by eliminating Chivas USA (for the second consecutive season) on goals by former Galaxy midfielder Josh Gardner and leading scorer Sebastien Le Toux, who also leads all Open Cup scorers this year. Next, Sounders goalkeeper Chris Eylander rose as the quarterfinal hero, making 13 saves to top the Kansas City Wizards in penalty kicks. The Sounders have posted four consecutive shutouts, including a 6-0 early-round win over Hollywood United, an amateur club frequently dotted with former pros or B-list SoCal celebs. Le Toux, a fast, smooth striker, had four of the goals against Hollywood United. He will soon test himself at the next level, in MLS next year. "He still needs help on movement and tenacity inside the penalty area," Sounders manager Brian Schmetzer said. "If he can develop that, he could rank up there with top MLS forwards." Charleston likewise dismissed two MLS clubs from the Open Cup. At Blackbaud, the Battery needed a penalty kick tiebreaker to take down a largely reserve Houston Dynamo side. More impressive was a 3-1 quarterfinal win over FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park. Lazo Alavanja, Ian Fuller and Randi Patterson struck for the Battery. Patterson, a young striker from UNC-Greensboro who rejected a Red Bull New York developmental contract last year, leads the Battery with nine goals this year. The United-Revolution contest may lack the same charm, especially as these teams clash in league play twice more this year, including once in New England eight days after the Open Cup encounter. The Revs have this to consider, too: If New England books passage into the final, it will add further congestion to an exhausting schedule that already includes 10 matches in six cities over the next 34 days. Following Tuesday's contest, New England will travel to San Jose for a weekend match, return to face United outside of Boston, then head to Toronto for an Aug. 23 match and to Trinidad and Tobago for an Aug. 26 Champions League match. The Revs used a mix of starters and reserves to get past Richmond of USL-2 and, in the quarterfinals, Crystal Palace Baltimore in penalty kicks. United eliminated Rochester by a 2-0 score in the third round. Then, in a quarterfinal match sullied by Cuauhtemoc Blanco's violent outburst, for which he received a two-year tournament ban, Tom Soehn's team eliminated Chicago on Bryan Namoff's overtime goal. United last appeared in an Open Cup final in 1997, when Bruce Arena's team fell to Dallas. Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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