U.S. OPEN CUP

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Seattle, Sporting fight for cup history

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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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When the 99th US Open Cup final takes place on Wednesday night at LiveStrong Sporting Park, two of Major League Soccer’s true success stories will square off aiming to add chapters to their club history. The Seattle Sounders will vie to become the first team to ever win four consecutive US Open Cup titles, but will have to win on the road against a spirited Sporting Kansas City squad that’s enjoying its own run of success.

The club formerly known as the Kansas City Wizards underwent a name and logo change before the 2011 season and the rebranding, coupled with the opening of the team’s beautiful new stadium, were supposed to usher in a new era of prosperity and success. A year and a half later, Sporting KC has evolved into one of the better teams in MLS, coming one game away from the MLS Cup Final last season. Now, the club stands one win away from securing the club’s second US Open Cup title.

The team is succeeding on the business side as well, with Livestrong Sporting Park regularly filling to capacity. The new venue and on-field success has also helped Sporting KC gain a foothold in the area that the Wizards never quite could establish. The team’s ownership views Wednesday’s Open Cup Final as the perfect showcase for the club, the market and growing fan base.

“Being able to bring the final to Kansas City is an important step for us,” said Sporting KC president and co-owner Robb Heinemann. “With the fan support we have, it has allowed us to get to this point and knowing how our fans are, I know it’s going to be an incredible scene.”

Yet, the Sounders will be looking to crash the party, and based on the team’s emphatic 4-0 thrashing of the Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday, Seattle is every bit in top form heading into Wednesday’s final. Seattle has shaken off a prolonged winless slump in league play with the help of their continued success in the Open Cup, and with the help of an offense that is finally looking like the unit that led MLS in goals scored in 2011.

Leading the charge for the Sounders is in-form striker Eddie Johnson, who enjoying a career renaissance since ending a disappointing tenure in Europe and returning to MLS. The former US national team striker has scored 10 goals this season, and is also scored the game-winning goal for the MLS All-Stars against Chelsea.

Led by Colombian striker Fredy Montero, the Sounders will try to test a Sporting KC defense that is among the best in MLS, but whose backline will be without All-Star defender Aurelien Collin, who is suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Sporting KC will have to lean on defenders Matt Besler and Julio Cesar to try and contain Seattle’s dangerous forward.

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Sporting Kansas City will be enjoying the home-field advantage in the final, though the advantage has not translated into results in recent weeks. Sporting KC is winless in their past four home matches, having managed to score just one goal in those games. With injuries to Bobby Convey and Jacob Peterson leaving head coach Peter Vermes with fewer options in the attack, Sporting KC will have to rely even more on playmaker Graham Zusi, who has been struggling to recapture the early-season form that had him performing like the best playmaker in MLS.

Zusi’s job will be made that much more difficult by All-Star Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, who will be playing in his unprecedented fifth Open Cup Final in a row. The Cuban midfielder is enjoying another banner campaign for the Sounders and he has a history of stepping up in the Open Cup Final.

Sporting Kansas City will be boosted by the return from the Olympics of Roger Espinoza. The Honduran midfield enjoyed an outstanding tournament in leading Honduras to the quarterfinals, and his performance in the team’s loss to Brazil has sparked speculation about a potential transfer move. Sporting KC will need Espinoza’s tireless and tenacious presence in central midfield to try and slow down Seattle’s attack, which thrives on speed and sharp passing.

Though Sporting KC will be the home team, the Sounders will enter as favorites to win a fourth straight Open Cup title. As a team, they boast more big-game experience than the young Sporting KC side possesses. What Sporting Kansas City will be banking on is the boost the team is sure to receive from a sell-out crowd at LiveStrong Sporting Park, where fans will do their part to make it a hostile environment for the Sounders and a haven for the home team.

Sporting KC will need more than loud fans if they want to keep Seattle from making history on their home field. They will need to play their best game of the year in order to beat a Sounders team that knows what it takes to win a final, a team that will be even more motivated by the chance to make history.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.

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