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Sep 1, 2009

All-MLS showdown in U.S. Open Cup final

D.C. United is a proud club with hardy tradition. Officials happily trumpet that the organization exists to win championships. If you forget, you can always check out United's new sister Web site, WeWinTrophies.com. No kidding. Which is all well and good, except that getting into position to claim hardware lately has been a chore for the men of RFK. A weekend win boosted United's sagging MLS playoff hopes, but if postseason ambitions collapse it will mark the second consecutive year they have done so. Meanwhile, the reach for CONCACAF Champions League redemption was practically an aborted launch. A year after bowing meekly in group play, two losses in two matches this year has United sitting at group bottom once again. Which all makes Wednesday's reach for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title that much more pressing for United. The Black and Red seek to defend their hold on the Dewar Cup -- the oldest trophy in U.S. team sports -- at home against the Seattle Sounders, a spunky MLS expansion side that has stolen hearts and headlines aplenty this year. Five storylines to follow 1. The tournament: Many good soccer supporters still don't know a thing about this tournament, a dandy little single-elimination competition open to all professional and amateur teams and named after the late soccer pioneer Lamar Hunt. It dates from 1914. Recent history is full of upsets by USL sides, lower-tier developmental teams and even amateur clubs. This year two MLS clubs meet in the final, competing for a $100,000 prize. MLS clubs don't put the Dewar Cup up there with an MLS Cup trophy. It's not even close. Still, it's hardware. D.C. has two Open Cup crowns. For Seattle it would be the first trophy for an organization with seemingly many sunny days ahead.

U.S. Open Cup final
Wednesday
Seattle vs. D.C. United
RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
7:30 p.m. ET

2. Another match at RFK: A subplot here is the rising awareness of U.S. Soccer's methodology for selecting venues. Long story short: D.C. United will be playing its eighth consecutive home match in Open Cup competition, leaving some to wonder if U.S. Soccer officials mistakenly believe all travel has been banned out of Dulles and Reagan National airports. United's last Open Cup match away from the D.C. area came in 2007. (United lost that one to the Harrisburg City Islanders. Ouch.) Seattle management isn't happy with the situation. But it's not United's fault. Both clubs submitted bids to host the final; U.S. Soccer officials (who don't discuss bid details) said United's bid was simply superior. Seattle was forced by circumstance to include an afternoon start time in its bid, which is surely less than ideal for TV and attendance purposes. 3. The push for a big crowd: Annual storybook upsets aside, Open Cup drama has yet to capture American imaginations en masse. Last year's final drew a modest crowd of 8,212 at RFK. So United officials there are making a mighty push to draw more fans into the historic grounds this time. Hence the whole WeWinTrophies.com campaign. They had sold more than 10,000 tickets by Monday. United president Kevin Payne hopes for more than 15,000, but says selling a tournament that "you have to explain to people" remains challenging. He says U.S. Soccer should up the cash prize substantially. "The approach that a lot of MLS teams have taken over the years hasn't helped," Payne said Monday. "That's why I believe the federation needs to provide a significant incentive to get teams to take this thing seriously and try hard to win it."
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4. It's Seattle's world; the rest of us are just living in it: No matter what happens Wednesday, the Sounders' story of 2009 has resonated. The expansion darlings bolted off the mark, powered by promising young striker Fredy Montero and two vets with European seasoning, Kasey Keller and Freddie Ljungberg. At the gate, the Sounders have been nothing short of remarkable. Their average of 30,587 at Qwest Field is crushing the field in league attendance and is almost sure to set an all-time single season league record. 5. Recent form: Neither side has kicked up much "wow" factor on the field lately. United was reeling before a 1-0 weekend win at Chicago stanched the bleeding for now. Still, manager Tom Soehn is surely feeling the pressure with a team that is just 2-5-3 in all competitions since mid-July. A Jaime Moreno penalty kick and a late game-winner from Boyzzz Khumalo pushed United past the USL's Rochester Rhinos in one Open Cup semifinal July 21. Seattle has just one win in seven MLS matches lately, leaving the expansion side's playoff hopes on the skids. Signs of nervous tummies were endemic in last weekend's insipid 0-0 home draw with Toronto. The Sounders are in Wednesday's final because one of their recent sprinkles of success was a 2-1 Open Cup semifinal win in extra time over Houston. Nate Jaqua and Stephen King struck for Seattle. Five players to watch 1. Freddie Ljungberg: No one can argue the Seattle attacker's talent, but his production is frankly middling, considering he's one of just eight players swelling in the pricey Designated Player neighborhood of MLS. The slight Swede has only two goals and five assists, ranking him no higher than third on the team in either category. Plus, discipline has been a problem as Ljungberg is in the middle of every nearby fracas. All that aside, the man can still turn a match with one of his signature slashing bursts. He'll line up on the right of a 4-4-2 but enjoy a free role in the attack. 2. Bryan Namoff: There are surely sexier names around RFK: the likes of Ben Olsen, Christian Gomez, Luciano Emilio, Fred, etc. But Namoff has been steadier than most for United this year. On Saturday he supplied the goal that got D.C.'s playoff train back on track. And as the first-choice right back, he'll oppose live-wire Seattle rookie Steve Zakuani, a force along the Sounders' left side lately. 3. Kasey Keller: You know all that mess about aging stars who earned their chops in Europe then came to the States for semi-retirement? Well, that ain't Keller. The longtime gold standard of U.S. 'keepers has been large and in charge at Qwest all year. At 39, he still makes the stops that matter. And his veteran guidance helps steer Seattle. 4. Osvaldo Alonso: The Sounders' holding midfielder hasn't been the same since a June injury, but he'll need to find the old form Wednesday. Alonso is no stranger to the circumstance; his big night a year ago at RFK helped the Charleston Battery give United all it could handle in the 2008 Open Cup final. (United prevailed 2-1 on goals by Emilio and Fred.) 5. Jaime Moreno: One of Major League Soccer's elder statesman has been relegated to sub duty lately. But expect to see the league's all-time leader in goals (he's fourth all-time in assists, too) at some point. Even in limited duty, he has six goals this year and has frequently turned matches in D.C.'s favor with his calming second-half introductions. Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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