U.S. Open Cup Finally Getting Audience It Deserves

Kasey Keller, the greatest keeper in American history, will play for his second American title since returning to his native country.

The Sounders and Crew -- two of the top teams in MLS -- will play in front of a record crowd for the chance to be crowned champions of the country's longest continuously running championship, the U.S. Open Cup

Wars have stopped golf from crowning their national champions. Strikes have halted baseball. Disorganization has helped keep tennis from playing their U.S. Open. Basketball and football are both relatively new to the national title dance. Hockey has always been played across international borders, and doesn't have an official crown for the best team in the United States.

Soccer, on the other hand, has trudged through.

Every year since 1914, some American team has been crowned champion of what is now known as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Believe it or not, no American sport has been naming a national champion, continuously for a longer period of time.

You'd think someone outside of a few diehards would have noticed, especially considering MLS teams have been taking part ever since 1996.

Rather, the tournament's early rounds have been played in front of crowds more befitting high school football. Even the championship games have often been played before crowds a fraction the size of those that see the same teams during the regular season.

With the Seattle Sounders hosting this year's final against the Columbus Crew Tuesday night -- and trying to become the first team since 1983 to repeat as champion -- that will finally change.

There have already been more than 27,000 tickets sold for the match and the team is expecting about 30,000 to show up for matchday. This already blows away the previous high-attendance mark of 21,583 that reportedly saw New York Hakoah and Madison Kennel Club play for the title in 1929. That crowd will also be about three times more than the average championship game attendance during the MLS era (9,805) and about 10,000 more than the previous high during that era (19,146 in 2000).

Part of that success at the turnstile is, no doubt, a product of how seriously the Sounders take this tournament. Even in the early rounds, regular starters played significant minutes. In the semifinal, eight of their normal starters played the vast majority of the match and one more came on as a late substitute.

While some coaches have grumbled over how much of an inconvenience the tournament is -- almost always after a loss -- the Sounders coaches have never downplayed their excitement at competing for a domestic trophy.

"As I have always said, it's always special when you can do something that is unique and that's different and can set yourself apart from the group and we have that opportunity tomorrow," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "Nobody has defended this title in a long time. Being able to step up and do that after a 27- or 28-year gap is something that is definitely special for our team and we look forward to it."

The Crew, for their part, also seem to place a premium on doing well in the tournament. Ten of their starters in their USOC semifinal match have been among the normal starting rotation, a group that includes aging stars Guillermo Barros Schelloto and Frankie Hejduk.

"We know it's going to be loud and a tough place to play," Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer said. "But it's a chance to win a championship. That's why we play these games."

Both teams are expected to field starting XIs that look very similar to the ones that played on Saturday.

This bit of good publicity comes at an important time for the tournament. Although Sounders General Manager Adrian Hanauer recently said on ExtraTime Radio that he's "99 percent sure" that this year's USOC Champion will receive a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League tournament as it has since 2008, there is still possibility that the CCL could change its mind. Showing those tournament organizer that this is a legitimate championship that is taken seriously by both teams and fans can only help the Open Cup's case.

Losing that berth -- even if it's just into the preliminary round -- would obviously be a blow to a tournament that has weathered more than its share already.

"To have the Open Cup champion qualify gives meaning to the tournament," Schmid said. "If you don't have a qualification attached to it, it takes a little more away from the tournament and I think it's at a time where we have got to add some prestige to the tournament and having qualification adds some prestige."

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