Photo by Steven Bisig/USA Today Sports
By DAN KARELL
On Tuesday night, an unlikely champion will be crowned in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup.
The two converging story lines at PPL Park are the visiting Seattle Sounders, looking to win their fourth Open Cup title, while the host Philadelphia Union attempt to win their first piece of silverware.
Four months ago, the likelihood of this pair meeting in the final was low, as the two had to pass through a gauntlet of matches just to make it to this point. The Sounders battled through two straight games against MLS opponents in extra time, needing to win on penalty kicks against the San Jose Earthquakes in the fifth round and scoring twice in extra time to down the hated Portland Timbers.
The Union on the other hand came back from a goal down to defeat the New York Cosmos, in a match highlighted by a late-game brawl that saw three players dismissed, while relying on the late-game heroics of Zac MacMath in the penalty kick shootout to advance to the final.
Union interim coach Jim Curtin feels that the late-round obstacles has prepared his team to face the leading side in MLS.
“In these competitions, and Sigi (Schmid) can speak for this, there’s always obstacles, big hurdles that you have to go through,” Curtin said. “Its a competition I’m very familiar with, the grind of it, the fact that the games come mid-week and they come at you fast is a challenging one. You have to juggle lineups, you have to juggle different things. But to be able to have our team rested right now and put a full strength squad out there on Tuesday is very good for us.”
Having a full-strength squad available will be of huge importance to both teams, but the Sounders enter the match with an extra day of rest, having played last Friday evening.
Schmid admitted that there were “three to four” roster decisions that he and the coaching staff had to make, but that he’s not worried about the possibility of burning his players out with a mid-week game.
“Players like to play, they don’t like to train, and they don’t want to be rested necessarily,” Schmid said. “So we look at it (like) is somebody carrying a knock, is there an injury, is there some reason that we don’t think he can get through 90 minutes, then we might make some adjustments or some changes. We feel that with the amount of rest that we’ve had from our game on Friday, we feel pretty good about the group.”
While the match means a great deal for both clubs, the game also has extreme importance to two of the players taking part, Sounders forward Kenny Cooper and Union forward Sebastien Le Toux.
Le Toux was a member of the original Sounders team in MLS, which lifted the first of their three U.S. Open Cup titles in 2009. Earlier this year, Le Toux cemented his place in Open Cup history with his 14th goal in the competition, becoming the all-time leader in the modern era.
Sitting right behind Le Toux is Cooper, who has 12 goals in the Open Cup, and scored six on the team’s run to this year’s final. Playing in his first Open Cup final, Cooper is relishing the chance to lift the trophy to honor the man it’s named after, Lamar Hunt.
“For me to be part of a competition that has Lamar Hunt’s name on the trophy is very special,” Cooper said. “Lamar brought my father here to the (United) States back in the 70s and he played his entire career for Lamar.
“When I first started in the league I played under Lamar and then I had the opportunity to play for his son. It would be very special to me to lift that trophy and hopefully I’ll get that chance.”
The Union’s run to the Open Cup final has come in somewhat similar fashion to D.C. United’s stunning campaign last year. After a 3-7-6 start to the season in MLS, the Union decided it was time for a change, firing John Hackworth on June 10 and assistant coach Rob Vartughian shortly after, promoting assistant coach and hometown man Curtin to the role of head coach.
Since taking over, Curtin has lead the Union to an impressive turnaround, with a 6-2-4 record in their last 12 league games, as well as a spot in the Open Cup final.
Being from Philadelphia, Curtin said he feels the pressure of winning a trophy for the fans, who have showed up to see the club from day one.
“We have our own unique fan base and they’re hungry,” Curtin said. “It’s only our fifth year, this is an opportunity to lift a trophy, and it’s one that our fans deserve. They’ll all be out here in waves tomorrow, pushing us on, (and) it’s something that means a lot to me.
“Being from this city, to do it here would be special….I feel a little more of the weight not to let the city down.”