Winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup might not be as important as laying claim to the MLS Cup three months from now, but it still would be a hugely significant milestone for Sporting Kansas City — a chance to paint the wall.
Soccer can seem overwhelming for the casual fan with its dizzying array of cups and champions leagues and midseason exhibitions dubbed “friendlies,” which is a departure from other U.S. professional sports.
While MLS is straightforward enough, with its well-defined preseason, regular season and playoffs similar to other U.S. sports, soccer’s overall structure makes it something of an outlier still.
“It’s awfully difficult for Americans to understand, especially for new fans coming in,” said Roger Allaway, the National Soccer Hall of Fame historian and a 37-year veteran soccer reporter/editor. “It’s confusing, because it’s different from what they are used to.
“NFL teams and Major League Baseball teams have one objective. Soccer teams can have multiple objectives, but the bottom line is that it’s the championship of the U.S. Soccer Federation and for a long time was the only national championship.”
Make no mistake, Sporting KC has a chance — a rare and important chance — to claim the nation’s oldest and arguably most prestigious championship Wednesday against the Seattle Sounders at Livestrong Sporting Park.
“It should be among the most important titles in U.S. soccer,” said renowned historian Colin Jose, who has written nine books about the sport’s history in the U.S. “It should be on the same level as winning MLS. It’s right up there as one of the two most important championships in U.S. Soccer.”
It’s not often one of Kansas City’s professional sports franchises competes for a national crown.
The Chiefs last played in a Super Bowl in 1970.
The Royals haven’t been to the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985.
The then-Wizards ranked near the bottom in MLS attendance during the 2000 run to the MLS Cup title and again four years later, the only other time the club reached the U.S. Open Cup final.
But with Sporting KC’s emergence and rising prominence, which roughly coincided with the opening of Livestrong Sporting Park in June 2011, Kansas City could become a title town once when the 99th U.S. Open Cup final kicks off at 8 p.m.
“It’s certainly a worthwhile trophy to have,” Allaway said. “It’s hard to get through all those rounds and survive in a single-elimination format. That makes it a very worthwhile trophy to win and a very difficult trophy to win.”
Up for a quick history lesson? There hadn’t been a World War much less two of them when the Brooklyn Field Club claimed the first U.S. Open Cup in 1914 at Coates Field in Pawtucket, R.I.
Back then, it was called the National Challenge Cup.
In 1999, U.S. Soccer renamed its most prestigious knockout tourney and the nation’s oldest soccer competition (the U.S. Open Cup, which is open to any U.S. Soccer Federation-affiliated team) in honor of Sporting KC’s founder Lamar Hunt, who is regarded as one of the pioneers of U.S. soccer as an owner in MLS and the North American Soccer League in the 1960s.
“It lost some of its appeal during the war and it almost faded from view in the 1960s,” Jose said. “During the years of the original North American Soccer League (1968-1984), those teams didn’t play in it, which lowered its status. But since MLS has come into existence, it’s regained some of its stature.”
Since its inception in 1996, MLS has dominated the tourney with one of its clubs winning the U.S. Open Cup every year except 1999 when the Rochester (N.Y.) Raging Rhinos claimed a stunning title.
Rochester, which also reached the final in 1996 before losing to D.C. United, and the Charleston Battery in 2008 are the only other non-MLS teams even to reach a U.S. Open Cup final in the last 17 years.
But the last few years, one particular MLS team — the Sounders — have been particularly dominant, winning the last three titles and tying the all-time record for consecutive championships in the near century-old tourney.
The Fall River Marksmen, who became the New Bedford Whalers in 1932, were the first to three-peat from 1930-1932, while Stix, Baer and Fuller/St. Louis Central Breweries immediately followed with another three-peat from 1933-35.
The last squad to accomplish a three-peat before the Sounders was New York Greek American, which won titles from 1967-69.
“It’s very important for soccer to understand that it has a history in the United States,” Jose said, “and the Open Cup shows that to people. Soccer is one of the oldest sports in this country, but a lot of people don’t realize that it existed here before MLS.”
No team in history has won the U.S. Open Cup four straight times — and Sporting KC and its fans hope it stays that way.
With a win, Sporting KC also would qualify forthe CONCACAF Champions League
for the third time. The club also participated in 2002 and 2005, reaching the tourney’s semifinals a decade ago.
“That’s the way MLS is going to improve itself, by winning in that tournament,” Jose said of the CONCACAF Champions League. “A lot of MLS fans are very concerned about playing European teams, but you’ve got to learn to walk before you can run. The first step is winning major tournaments in CONCACAF.”