Seattle sparkles in U.S. Open Cup final

Compared to the equivalent tournaments in Europe’s top soccer-playing countries, the U.S. Open Cup has long lagged behind in terms of exposure, interest and importance.

You wouldn’t have known that on Tuesday night at Qwest Field as more than 31,000 Seattle Sounders fans provided a tremendous backdrop and the Sounders and Columbus Crew played a high-level match that would have made any tournament final proud.

Seattle’s 2-1 U.S. Open Cup victory had it all. It had a raucous home crowd, a stunning early goal from the road team, a strong comeback and overall a fun game for all fans to see. It had drama, atmosphere and a feeling like the teams were playing for something that matters. For too long, that hasn’t been the case for the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament open to teams at every playing level.

Seattle dominated Tuesday’s final for long stretches, but the Crew proved a worthy opponent and made the Sounders work for their second trophy. The teams played an organized and technical match that saw a fast pace, crisp passing and good chances. The game had its star players step up, and unlikely heroes emerge. It was basically everything Major League Soccer was hoping the recent New York-Los Angeles Galaxy match would be, and what MLS fans will be hoping for more of when the playoffs begin later this month.

The Sounders proved too much for Columbus to handle thanks to the attacking quartet of Sanna Nyassi, Steve Zakuani, Blaise Nkufo and Fredy Montero. Zakuani was particularly difficult for Columbus to handle all night, with his speed troubling the Crew back-line repeatedly. Nkufo and Montero both did their parts to hold the ball up and create chances, though neither converted on the night. That task fell to Nyassi, who showed no fear in finishing off two quality chances.

The victory now gives Seattle consecutive U.S. Open Cup titles, making the Sounders the first MLS team to pull off the feat. The trophy is the fifth for head coach Sigi Schmid, who has now won three U.S. Open Cup titles to go along with his two MLS Cup titles. He just might be ready to add his sixth trophy next month if he can keep his Sounders playing the way they have been playing over the past month.

The loss was a bitter pill for the Crew, which finds itself struggling heading into the playoffs. A four-match winless streak that includes a 4-0 home loss to these same Sounders has to be a concern for Robert Warzycha.

One player Warzycha doesn’t have to worry about is Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who was at his creative best for the Crew. Unfortunately for him, Schelotto got far too little support from his teammates in attack, save for the sequence leading to the Crew’s goal. The return from injury of Robbie Rogers should provide a boost, but Warzycha heads into a second straight October with serious questions to ask about which players to start and whether his team will find a good rhythm heading into the playoffs.

The Sounders U.S. Open Cup victory against Columbus wasn’t just a triumph for a blossoming club, or a reward for the most impressive fan base in North America. The match was a sorely-needed boost for a tournament that has long gone ignored, and could soon see its profile raised.

The Open Cup isn’t just ignored by the media, and often overlooked by fans, it is far too often dismissed by the same MLS clubs expected to make the tournament relevant. The early rounds of the tournament are almost always filled with MLS teams fielding reserve squads, which often leaves you wondering whether MLS coaches would just as soon not even compete in the tournament. Yes, roster size issues and congested schedules can lead teams to rest starters, but Tuesday’s triumph by Seattle showed just what the tournament can mean to a team and its fans of treated with respect.

MLS teams will have fewer excuses for ignoring or taking lightly a tournament like the U.S. Open Cup next year, when rosters are expected to increase and more teams are able to benefit from the changes to the salary cap and addition of more Designated Player slots.

With more weapons, MLS teams should be able to field stronger teams and make the U.S. Open Cup the type of intense competition that fans in other countries enjoy so much. The type of event that can produce more matches like the one Seattle and Columbus treated us to in Tuesday’s final.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.