The Major League Soccer season might often take priority over the U.S. Open Cup, but a trophy's a trophy. The Seattle Sounders and Philadelphia Union won't hold anything back when they meet in this year's final.
For the Union, the fixture is a chance to make history. Never before have they appeared in the U.S. Open Cup final. Only 90 minutes separate them from their first title.
Considering how desperate the Union looked earlier in the season, the fact that Jim Curtin has led them this far is nothing short of astounding, even if many of the other MLS clubs view the Open Cup as a chore rather than an opportunity.
The Sounders, on the other hand, have been a juggernaut in the Open Cup. This is the fifth year in the club's six-year history in which Seattle has reached the final. The Sounders' three titles is second among MLS clubs, one behind the Chicago Fire's four:
Trevor Hayward of the North American Soccer Network joked that Seattle should be billed in tandem with the U.S. Open Cup from now on:
Can we officially change the competition name to the "U.S. Open Cup starring the Seattle Sounders" yet? #USOC2014— Trevor Hayward (@HeyHayward) August 14, 2014
Manager Sigi Schmid believes that the competition combined with the friendly confines of Starfire Stadium have had a positive effect on his club throughout the knockout tournament.
"It's a different atmosphere. It's a tradition," he said, per SoundersFC.com's Matt Gaschk. "I think our guys thrive on the closeness of the crowd. It helps spur them on to good performances."
The Sounders won't have the comfort of a home crowd for the final, though. They'll be making the trip to PPL Park, which can provide the Union with a major home-field advantage. That could prove to be the ultimate equalizer.
When: Tuesday, Sept. 16, at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: PPL Park, Chester, Pennsylvania
According to MLSSoccer.com's Benjamin Baer, Seattle and Philadelphia have met on seven occasions. The fixture has been relatively even, with the Sounders taking three and the Union winning twice.
The two last played one another on May 3, with the Sounders winning 2-1 at CenturyLink Field. Obafemi Martins equalized in the 61st minute, wiping out Brad Evans' own goal, and Chad Marshall scored the winner six minutes from injury time in the second half.
That defeat came during Philly's nine-match losing streak earlier in the MLS campaign. The club has since moved on from that and revitalized itself.
Although neither club has gained a major head-to-head advantage, Empire of Soccer's Dave Martinez compared the Open Cup final to Rocky. He likened the Sounders to Apollo Creed, while the Union were the plucky underdog Rocky Balboa:
The Philadelphia Union, meanwhile, practically stumbled over themselves to claim their first Final appearance in team history. The Union dispatched of F.C. Dallas on Tuesday evening in a penalty shootout after conceding their lead late in regulation. That victory typifies the scrappy nature of the Union’s Open Cup success. They needed extra time to beat the Harrisburg City Islanders and the New York Cosmos (at home no less!). They scored a clean win against the Revolution at PPL Park before advancing to Dallas and winning on the road.
In short, the Union aren’t just playing the “Rocky” role because the final is in Philadelphia; they are the scrappy, underachieving, unlikely contenders in this lopsided affair.
The Sounders did stumble a bit in the league recently, losing three of four before beating the Houston Dynamo on Sunday. However, they remain one of the best teams in MLS and look strong favorites to win the Open Cup, despite the Union's positive strides under Curtin.
Who wins the Open Cup Final?
Seattle not only has one of the league's best attacking duos in Martins and Clint Dempsey but also a back four which includes the defender of the year so far in Chad Marshall and one of the United States' most promising full-backs in DeAndre Yedlin, who just completed a transfer to EPL side Tottenham Hotspur but will remain with the Sounders for the rest of the season.
Few, if any, clubs in the U.S. have more talent than the Sounders.
Philadelphia's chances will hinge on two key facets.
Since his shift to centre-back, Maurice Edu has become the Union's best defender. With the Sounders' strong attack, Edu will need to be on top form and communicating properly with the rest of his defense to ensure that Martins and Dempsey aren't finding too much space in and around the 18-yard box.
While Yedlin is a promising player, he's still a bit raw in that he gets caught marauding forward too often, which leaves the flank exposed at times. Cristian Maidana is among the Union's most dangerous attackers. If he can exploit the inexperience of Yedlin and his lack of tactical awareness, then Marshall and the Seattle centre-backs will get pulled out of position, leaving space for Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey.
If the Union accomplish those two things, they'll be in a great position to topple the MLS leaders.
Philadelphia will make the most of its counter-attacks, and with the home crowd behind them, they'll pull off the upset.
Final Score: Philadelphia Union 2, Seattle Sounders 1