By JOSE M. ROMERO
The Columbus Crew just punched its ticket to the MLS playoffs. The Seattle Sounders are close to doing the same.
Tonight at Qwest Field, however, the MLS season and its playoff picture will take a back seat to something that means a great deal to both clubs, the 2010 U.S. Open Cup Final (10pm, Fox Soccer Channel).
The tournament and trophy are named for its original owner, and the Columbus Crew can add a second Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship to its list of achievements. The second-year Sounders, on the other hand, can become only the second team since 1983 to win back-to-back Open Cup titles.
Seattle completed a thrilling run to the championship in 2009, reveling in a 2-1 win over D.C. United at RFK Stadium on Sept. 2. It was a wild night for the team and its fans, as players passed the trophy around and celebrated with a few hundred diehards who'd made the trip back East to see the final. At one point the Cup stood by itself on the floor of the Sounders' locker room being sprayed by flying champagne.
That was then. In the here and now, the storylines are plentiful between Columbus and Seattle in the 97th U.S. Open Cup final.
1. This year's final will set a new attendance record for the championship game of the tourney, as close to 30,000 fans are expected. As of Monday afternoon, 28,800 tickets had been sold.
2. Seattle gets to host this year after it lost its bid to host the final last year in a more fun than serious barb-trading episode between DC United president Kevin Payne and Sounders GM/minority owner Adrian Hanauer. This year, the Sounders don't have a Mariners baseball game to contend with on the same night as the final, since the baseball regular season is over.
"We were definitely disappointed last year that the final was in D.C. and not in Seattle," Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller told the Seattle Times. "We've wanted to get back to this final and to have it at Qwest in front of our fans."
3. Seattle coach Sigi Schmid has faced his former assistant in Columbus, now Crew head coach Robert Warzycha, in regular-season matches. This time, the two friends go at it for hardware.
4. Warzycha, as a player for the Crew, helped hand Schmid a loss in the 2002 Open Cup final, when the Crew defeated Schmid's L.A. Galaxy. Schmid was seeking a repeat Open Cup title that year, just as he is in 2010.
The Sounders have to be considered the favorites. They're 10-1-3 in their last 14 non-CONCACAF Champions League games, including U.S. Open Cup matches, and unbeaten at Qwest Field in the past eight. They also won 4-0 at Crew Stadium last month in a regular-season match between the two teams. What's more, the home team is 9-3 in Open Cup finals since MLS teams joined the tournament in 1996.
"We know it's going to be loud and a tough place to play," Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer told the club website. "But it's a chance to win a championship. That's why we play these games."
The Crew knows more about big games than do the Sounders. Columbus has won an MLS championship, an Open Cup title and three Supporters Shields. It figures to look toward overall scoring leader Guillermo Barros Schelotto for offense, while Steven Lenhart and Andy Iro have two goals in Open Cup play this season.
The Sounders will be looking for Nate Jaqua on the attack. Jaqua has five goals in three U.S. Open Cup matches this year. Fredy Montero is the team's MLS leader in goals with 10, though he hasn't put one in the back of the net since Aug. 28.
"He's a goal scorer, he'll get his goals in the future and if he saves them all for the Open Cup and the playoffs, I'm okay with that too," Schmid said of Montero.
"Both teams have plenty of incentive," the Crew's Frankie Hejduk said in an MLS web site video. "So it's going to be a chippy and fun final to watch and fun final to be a part of."
Part of that incentive is the $100,000 in prize money for the winner, even though the runner-up gets $50,000.
Who do you think will win the U.S. Open Cup championship, Columbus or Seattle? Share your thoughts below.