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Matt Pentz is an award-winning sports reporter who writes weekly columns on Sounders FC for Prost Amerika. Matt’s work also appears on the Guardian, ESPNFC, FourFourTwo and Yahoo
I’m a sucker for the Open Cup
By Matt Pentz
Yes, the lack of variance in the U.S. Open Cup bracket is a bit annoying.
Because the tournament considers geography, and especially in the wide-open parts of the West, the same teams tend to get drawn together year after year. When the Sounders and Timbers kick off in the fourth round of the Open Cup on Tuesday night at Starfire Stadium, it’ll mark the third time in five seasons they’ve met in this competition on that field.
Sure, the Major League Soccer schedule makers could’ve done a better job so as to avoid four Cascadian derbies packed together within 14 weeks.
Yet to those still grumbling about fixture congestion as they make their way down to Starfire tonight, I would humbly offer a suggestion: Just enjoy it.
This is still Seattle-Portland, in a loser-out game, in front of what is sure to be a raucous crowd. They could play these games in the middle of an empty field down in Chehalis – given the amount of minor-league call-ups, both teams are treating it with about that level of seriousness – and it would still be a special occasion.
And don’t just take my word for it. Asked earlier this week if at some point there comes Sounders-Timbers oversaturation and burnout, Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei shook his head.
“No,” Frei said, “even when we play them in preseason, you sense that it’s not just another walk-through. I maintain that there’s a real rivalry there that goes deeper than just the league creating something. And when it’s real, you can’t just turn it off. It’s always there, and that’s a good thing.”
Frei went so far as to spin the amount of likely lineup rotation into a positive. Even if Portland has called up 11 USL guys, and Seattle goes with what coach Brian Schmetzer referred to Monday as a “mixed squad,” hey, what better way to blood your young guys in the rigors of MLS’ best rivalry?
“These are really good moments and really good opportunities to shine and show what they’re made of,” Frei said. “If you want to give young guys a chance, this is probably as good as it gets for young Sounders players.”
I’ll cop to being a sucker for the Open Cup.
The competition has its drawbacks, to be sure. Until U.S. Soccer is willing to pony up and cover some of the travel costs that a blind draw would entail, matchups will continue to be repetitive.
MLS teams rarely take the tournament seriously until the later rounds, devaluing its legitimacy. Because the format is unique within American professional sports, it can be hard to explain to casual fans.
And yet there is unimpeachable history here, with deep roots digging back more than a century. Tracing through past champions is to track the history of soccer in this country: Bethlehem Steel’s dominance in the 1910s and ‘20s, the ethnic clubs like the Brooklyn Italians, Philadelphia Ukrainians and Greek-American A.C.
There’s romance to the Open Cup, too. See: The amateur club sponsored by a discount Baltimore-area liquor store that will take its best shot at MLS’ D.C. United on Tuesday night in Maryland.
Say what you want about Starfire’s narrow and bouncy field, on Open Cup nights it makes for a hell of a venue. The stadium offers a throwback to this series’ more modest days, when both teams were toiling in the minor leagues. Fans are right on top of the action, the beer garden behind the east goal contributes to the lively atmosphere and players can hear every chant.
Portland’s Diego Valeri has compared playing at Starfire to playing a “futsal” game; he also loves it.
“It’s really special,” Valeri said. “It’s almost like a cool, college atmosphere.”
Asked about the pros and cons about meeting Portland yet again in this competition, especially at the start of a stretch of three matches in eight days, Schmetzer was diplomatic.
“Am I happy with it?” Schmetzer said. “Yeah, because we got a home game. It saves a little bit there. Am I happy we have to play our archrival all the time, on a small field where tempers flare? It is what it is. You can only control what you can control.”
You can only control what you can control, so you might as well embrace it. As often as these games are seemingly coming around this summer, there’s still something unique and fleeting about these nights.
If we’re approaching Sounders-Timbers burnout, I, for one, am not there yet.
Coverage of Sounders FC v Portland Timbers USOC 2015