[U.S. OPEN CUP: Preview] Despite a long and rich history the U.S. Open Cup is more renowned for what it earns than what it is. An automatic spot in the Concacaf Champions League, one of four places allotted to U.S. Soccer-registered teams, is at stake Tuesday at Rio Tinto Stadium when Real Salt Lake hosts two-time winner D.C. United to decide the 100th edition of a competition that began in 1913.
There’s also $250,000 in prize money at stake and a chunk of allocation money -- one source from a participating team pins the figure at $100,000 -- yet the game will be shown only on GolTV (9 p.m. ET), which in the past 15 months has been dropped by many cable systems. The game will not be streamed online, at least not officially.
Both teams are extremely motivated. RSL desperately wants another shot at the CCL; it reached the 2010-11 final and lost agonizingly to Mexican club Monterrey, 3-2, on aggregate following a 1-0 loss in the second leg at Rio Tinto. (Current Mexican national team coach Victor Manuel Vucetich masterminded the Monterrey victory.)
United has won the Open Cup twice in its history, during its double-winning 1996 season that was also the inaugural campaign of MLS, and 2008. Of the two finalists, it has traveled the harder path. It has played three MLS teams on its way to the final, RSL faced just one.
United scraped past Richmond Kickers of USL PRO on penalty kicks in its first game, then swept past three MLS foes to reach the final: Philadelphia (3-1), New England (3-1) and Chicago (2-0).
RSL needed overtime to beat USL PRO opposition in its first two games -- Atlanta (3-2) and Charleston (5-2) -- prior to facing another minor-league obstacle in Carolina of the NASL, which it beat, 3-0. A hard-fought 2-1 defeat of MLS rival Portland earned RSL its first Open Cup final appearance.
To give their teams the best chance of victory, coaches Jason Kreis and Ben Olsen rested many, if not all, of their starters for last weekend’s MLS matches. In the best tradition of a cup competition, in which underdogs often prevail, this year’s final matches one of Major League Soccer’s elite teams against its absolute worst. Aside from the same number of ties, they couldn’t be more different.
RSL (15-10-6) is tied for first place in the Western Conference and is just a point behind Eastern leader New York for best overall record. United (3-21-6) has already set a team record for losses and is just one away from tying Chivas USA (2005) for most defeats in a season.
Yet one of those three United wins came March 9 at RFK Stadium when Lionard Pajoy’s goal was enough for a 1-0 defeat of RSL. He’s only scored one other league goal all season while recovering from sports hernia surgery, yet is tied for second on the team. Dwayne De Rosario and Luis Silvaeach have three. If on their game, Chris Pontiusand Nick DeLeon can cause RSL a few problems, and that firepower gives D.C. a fighting chance.
“I know they beat us when we went away and played them at their place,” says RSL defenderNat Borchers. “I know they have some dangerous players. I know we're not going to play the game looking at their record and getting overconfident. We are going to respect them.”
Containing the skillful, fluid attack orchestrated by Javier Morales andLuis Gil can test any opponent and United’s dismal defensive record -- 52 goals conceded, second-worst in the league -- sharply tilts the odds in RSL’s favor. Backup Devon Sandoval, who has scored three Open Cup goals this season, got a rare start last weekend at Vancouver and headed home the only goal RSL needed to win, 1-0.
In addition to pleasing its home fans, RSL wants the boost of winning its first trophy since the 2009 MLS Cup. Despite trading longtime stalwarts Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Will Johnsonduring the offseason, it still has a core of players from that championship team as well as the 2011 squad that lost the CCL final in its own stadium.
Four of its veterans -- captain Kyle Beckerman, midfielder Ned Grabavoy, defender Chris Wingert and playmaker Morales -- have played in all four Open Cup games. RSL has bested its two quarterfinal appearances, in 2006 and 2011, by going all-in.
“I think it continues to demonstrate that we are about winning things here,” said Kreis of placing great emphasis on the competition since the early rounds. “It continues to demonstrate that our philosophies are working and are giving us opportunities to win things.”
U.S. Open Cup Finals (MLS Era):
1996D.C. United 3-0 Rochester Rhinos (A-League)
1997Dallas Burn 0-0 D.C. United
(Dallas Burn wins 5-3 on penalties.)
1998 Chicago Fire 2-1 Columbus Crew
1999 Rochester Rhinos (A-League) 2-0 Colorado Rapids
2000 Chicago Fire 2-1 Miami Fusion
2001 Los Angeles Galaxy 2-1 New England Revolution
2002 Columbus Crew 1-0 Los Angeles Galaxy
2003Chicago Fire 1-0 New York MetroStars
2004Kansas City Wizards 1-0 Chicago Fire
2005 Los Angeles Galaxy 1-0 FC Dallas
2006Chicago Fire 3-1 Los Angeles Galaxy
2007 New England Revolution 3-2 FC Dallas
2008 D.C. United 2-1 Charleston Battery (USL First Division)
2009Seattle Sounders 2-1 D.C. United
2010Seattle Sounders 2-1 Columbus Crew
2011Seattle Sounders 2-0 Chicago Fire
2012 Sporting Kansas City 1-1 Seattle Sounders