By FRANCO PANIZO
The U.S. Open Cup may still not draw the type of attention that is warranted of a tournament that has been around for nearly a century. But that does not matter for the two teams competing in this year's championship game, because they know all they need to about what is at stake.
The Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City will square off in the U.S. Open Cup final at Livestrong Sporting Park (9 p.m., GOLTV), and both teams have a huge opportunity to add another piece of hardware in the 99th title game of U.S. Soccer's annual national knockout tournament.
For the Sounders, a win would place them firmly in the history books. No other team has ever lifted the U.S. Open Cup trophy four consecutive years, but that is exactly what will happen if Seattle can overcome a strong, but injury-ravaged Sporting KC side as well as the lively crowd that is expected to be on hand.
"The opportunity to win a fourth is unique and special, but we know the competition is going to be very difficult tomorrow night," said Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid. "And playing away from home also makes it a bit harder, but it's something that's going to be exciting."
For Sporting KC, knocking off the Sounders en route to claiming their second Open Cup title would be the latest piece of evidence that this organization is on its way to being among the elite in MLS after a successful branding change in 2011 that altered the course of the franchise.
A victory would not only give Sporting KC and its faithful supporters a memorable moment inside of Livestrong Sporting Park, it would also put the club in the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time since the shift to the tournament's new format.
"There's no doubt it helps to be playing at home with our fans, but we don't think that's an overriding factor," said Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes. "At the end of the day, good teams can win anywhere. Seattle has proven that time and time again."
The Sounders have also demonstrated an ability to peak at the right time during the season. Seattle is coming off a comfortable win in CCL play and a 4-0 thrashing of the Los Angeles Galaxy in league play, and the Sounders have not lost in a competitive game since late June.
Part of the reason for that is because key players are stepping up and fulfilling the expectations set on them. The player who is perhaps playing the best for Seattle right now is not Designated Player Fredy Montero, but forward Eddie Johnson.
The veteran striker is in red-hot form, having netted seven times in the last nine league matches and 10 times this season. Johnson has rediscovered the confidence that made him one of MLS's most lethal finishers before he pursued opportunities overseas and he should keep the likes of centerback Matt Besler busy throughout the night in Kansas City, where Johnson spent two seasons before departing for Europe in 2008.
"Kansas City were good to me in my career. God willing, if I score I wouldn't even celebrate," Johnson told SBI in July, "because they gave me an opportunity to do what I love to do and that's being a professional soccer player.
"The organization was first class when I was there and you see it now, from playing at Arrowhead [Stadium] to now they've got their own soccer-specific stadium and it's sold out every weekend. It's going to be good to go back and see some familiar faces, and I'm looking forward to it."
Even with the number of injuries Sporting KC are currently dealing (along with a suspension to centerback Aurelien Collin), the players Vermes will have available should still provide enough attacking power to challenge Seattle's defensive core.
Like Seattle's Johnson, Teal Bunbury will give the hosts of the final a speedy option up top with the physical tools to keep defenders honest. Skilled midfielder Graham Zusi is also capable of unlocking defenses or creating some magic on his own. And that is without mentioning the role in-form midfielder Roger Espinoza, who is dealing with a clavicle injury suffered while with Honduras at the Olympics, could play for Sporting Kansas City.
"There's no doubt, we are definitely suffering right now from the injury bug," said Vermes. "But this competition especially is one in which you need to use every man of your roster. We've gotten to the final by rotating our team around."
It appears that no matter who starts or dresses for each team, an open game should be expected. Both head coaches have made a point to say that Wednesday night's game needs to be an attractive one to help demonstrate what the U.S. Open Cup is all about.
If that holds true, the final will not just further establish one of these clubs as one of the more successful teams in MLS, but it will also further dignify a tournament that deserves more attention.