Home-field squabble adds spice to Open Cup final
WASHINGTON -- D.C. United have screamed it loud and clear, on the Internet and in full-page newspaper ads: "WE WIN TROPHIES."
The Seattle Sounders hear screams as well, echoing from the 30,000 or so people who come to every home game: We have lots of fans.
So it is that United and the Sounders are playing Wednesday at RFK Stadium in the championship of the U.S. Open Cup, a 95-year-old single-elimination tournament that is open to amateur and professional teams across the country.
The event has some charm but is usually ignored outside the hardcore soccer community. A little bit of controversy is giving the game a needed boost.
Both teams wanted to host the final. Four-time MLS Cup champions United had tradition on their side; the first-year expansion team Sounders could offer a big turnout. When U.S. Soccer chose United, Seattle general manager Adrian Hanauer cried foul, saying he was "frustrated and somewhat skeptical of the process."
"Our fans deserve some answers," Hanauer said. "And, by the way, U.S. Soccer has been trying to raise the profile of the U.S. Open Cup. A game in front of 10,000 fans at RFK, I don't believe, is going to raise the profile as much as a game in front of a sold-out Qwest Field."
United president Kevin Payne says nothing was underhanded. He said United "bid aggressively" for the game, in part because the team has been playing extra road games as part of the international CONCACAF Champions League. While U.S. Soccer won't say why one bid is favored over another, Payne noted that RFK has grass, instead of Qwest Field's artificial surface, and that Seattle could only host the game in the afternoon because of scheduling issues.
"We thought it was very important strategically to play at home in this final," Payne said.
Of course, it would be embarrassing to have such a fuss over the home field and then have a tiny crowd show up, so United launched into aggressive marketing mode. The "WE WIN TROPHIES" ads feature the 12 national and international titles won by the club: four MLS Cups, two U.S. Open Cups, four MLS Supporters' Shields (for best regular season record), one CONCACAF Champions Cup and one InterAmerican Cup.
In addition, United are charging 1996 prices for the game, with tickets starting at $12 and hot dogs and beers at $2. Payne said he's expecting 15,000-20,000, perhaps double the number that came to RFK to watch United win last year's final.
Part of Payne pitch: "It's not that normal for a team to have a chance to win a championship in their home city," something that a major Washington pro team hasn't done since the Redskins won the 1942 NFL Championship at Griffith Stadium.
Payne said the big hurdle is educating the casual fan about the U.S. Open Cup. What's just as significant is that, even though they've been around 13 years, United still find themselves in the education business.
"We do have to do that, but I think frankly so do most of the other sports teams in town that aren't named the Redskins," Payne said. "We all struggle to some extent with that issue. And that's one of the points of the whole campaign that this is an opportunity for D.C. sports fans to hopefully stand up and say we do support our teams."
The players, of course, would welcome a good crowd, but a win would be better. After all, any trophy is a good trophy.
"I know there has been a lot of interesting talk in the press from what's gone on with Adrian to what's gone on with their ownership group," Seattle 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. We will see what happens from there. I've been fortunate to be in some tough finals, and nothing beats it."