supercyan.jpg
For better or worse ... break out the Super Cyan!
How much money does it take to get a professional sports franchise to give up

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After Buying a Home Match, Sounders Begin Pursuit of Fourth Consecutive U.S. Open Cup

supercyan.jpg
For better or worse ... break out the Super Cyan!
How much money does it take to get a professional sports franchise to give up its home-field advantage in a major tournament with less than a week's notice?

For the North American Soccer League's Atlanta Silverbacks, it starts at $12,000, the fee the U.S. Soccer Federation charges clubs to host a third-round match in the U.S. Open Cup tournament. But the amount Silverbacks owner Boris Jerkunica settled for in negotiations with Sounders FC last week is likely a whole lot more--possibly somewhere in the $50,000 range.

So tonight's match (7 p.m.; live webcast on SoundersFC.com) will be played before 4,500 at Tukwila's Starfire Sports Complex, instead of 2,200 miles and three time zones away at the Silverbacks' 5,000-seat stadium outside Atlanta, saving Sounders management the considerable costs--and players, coaches and staff all the hassles--associated with making a cross-country round trip.

"The decision associated with the venue change wasn't easy, by any means," Jerkunica said. "Seattle Sounders FC presented us with an offer that we simply couldn't refuse, and in the end, it was a decision that was based on the balance between instant gratification and long-term improvement."

Although the Sounders haven't won any MLS hardware in their first three seasons, there's no denying their remarkable record of success in the U.S. Open Cup, a parallel competition. The Cup, modeled on England's F.A. (Football Association) Cup, traces its lineage back to 1913, making it the oldest ongoing American soccer competition.

This year's tournament, which stretches from May to August, is a 64-team free-for-all (up from 40 teams last year) that includes amateur and professional teams from seven U.S. leagues, from Major League Soccer all the way down to the club-soccer level.

The Sounders have played 14 U.S. Open Cup matches since their MLS debut in 2009, winning 13 (they tied Portland 1-1 in the third round in 2009, prevailing 4-3 on penalty kicks). Because home-field advantage was determined by a closed-envelope bidding process, 11 of those contests were played in Tukwila or Seattle. They hoisted the trophy in Washington that first season, winning 2-1 at D.C. United, then triumphed on their own turf the past two years, defeating Columbus 2-1 in 2010 and Chicago 2-0 last year. No other MLS team has won back-to-back Cups, let alone three in a row. Three clubs have won three consecutive Cups, none since 1967-69; no club has won it four straight times.

Home-field advantage was determined by a blind draw this year; half of the 16 MLS teams that joined the fray this week played at home. In addition to Seattle, Real Salt Lake also paid its opponent, the NASL's Minnesota Stars, to move a home match. It didn't make any difference last night in Sandy, Utah: Real Salt Lake, the league's top team through the season's first three months and one of two teams to beat the Sounders, was upset 3-1.

Eight MLS teams took it on the road, boosting the potential David-slays-Goliath factor. The league's defending champion and current Western Conference cellar-dweller traveled all the way to Cary, N.C., where locals watched the Los Angeles Galaxy--minus David Beckham, who stayed in L.A., and Landon Donovan, who plays for the U.S. National Team against Brazil tonight--hit a new low last night in a 2-1 loss to the Carolina RailHawks.

In all, seven MLS teams lost to lower-level opponents: New England, Chicago and Houston also fell on the road, while Columbus and FC Dallas joined RSL in crashing out at home.

Will the upset bug bite the Sounders tonight, even playing at home? In a word, no.

The Silverbacks were by far the NASL's worst team last year, with 20 losses and just four wins in 28 matches; this year's edition is winless through nine matches, with five draws. There's one significant scoring threat: Reinaldo Navia, a 34-year-old Chilean striker whose six goals lead the league and is more than half of his club's total.

Two players on Atlanta's roster have local connections. Raphael Cox--a starter in midfield whose goal against the Georgia Revolution last Wednesday advanced his club to the third round--is a Tacoma native who played at Stadium High School and the University of Washington, where he was All-Pac-10 twice. A fourth-round draft pick by Real Salt Lake in 2009, he scored once in six appearances before returning to play for the Tacoma Tide of the United Soccer League's Premier Development League. His younger brother Jamael plays for the Sounders' Under-23 squad.

Midfielder Ciaran O'Brien--who despite seeing limited action leads the Silverbacks with three assists--grew up in Federal Way and was state Player of the Year at Decatur High School as a senior in 2005. He left UC Santa Barbara after his sophomore year and was Colorado's first-round pick, fifth overall, in the 2008 MLS draft. O'Brien saw one match for the Rapids that season before returning to play for the USL's first-division Sounders.

What lineup will Sounders fans see tonight in those new Super Cyan uniforms?

After playing eight matches in 29 days, this is a tired team, and some players will get a much-needed rest. Fredy Montero, who leads active Sounders with five goals in U.S. Open Cup play--one each in last year's quarterfinal, semifinal, and final--sat out the final 20 minutes last Saturday at Chivas USA and could start, but is unlikely to go all the way.

Ozzie Alonso's two-match suspension is only for MLS play, so don't be surprised to see him in midfield, where there should also be a place for rookie Andy Rose, who started for Alonso on Saturday. Rookies Alex Caskey--who set up David Estrada's game-tying goal at Chivas just a half-minute after coming on as a second-half substitute, and is tied for the team lead with three assists--and Cordell Cato should also see time in midfield. The tireless Estrada, with a team-high five goals, will be in the mix up front, and little-used players like midfielder Servando Carrasco and forward Sammy Ochoa could also see action.

Fans hoping to see Steve Zakuani's return will have to wait; he'll play in Friday's reserve match against Vancouver at Starfire, but the progress he's made in a year-long recovery from a severely broken ankle won't be risked tonight.

Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid doesn't have a whole lot of options in the back four; injuries have sidelined three defenders, so the core quartet of Marc Burch/Jhon Kennedy Hurtado/Jeff Parke/Zach Scott is likely to start once again. With Bryan Meredith facing his seventh consecutive start and Michael Gspurning not ready to return from a hip injury, third-string keeper Andrew Weber could see his first action.

The fourth round could be very interesting. The Sounders would face the winner of tonight's match in Portland between the MLS Timbers and an amateur squad from the U.S. Adult Soccer Association. Cal FC, based in Ventura County, is coached by Eric Wynalda, a longtime fixture on the U.S. National Team, member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, and opinionated TV analyst on ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel. His side, with several MLS castoffs, has won twice on the road, beating Kitsap Pumas, the defending USL Premier Development League champions, 3-1 two weeks ago in Bremerton, then traveling to North Carolina last week and blanking the USL Pro League's Wilmington Hammerheads 4-0.

If Cal FC, one of three amateur clubs left in the competition, can pull off a shocker tonight at Jeld-Wen Field, the Sounders would host them next Tuesday night at Starfire. If the Timbers prevail, the June 5 match will be played in Portland.

And that match isn't going anywhere, no matter what Seattle offers.

 
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