Sounders Face San Jose with Three-Year U.S. Open Cup Supremacy On the Line

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Hurtado and the Sounders must watch out for Lenhart.
Since joining Major League Soccer in 2009, Sounders FC have played 16 U.S. Open Cup matches and won them all, capturing this country's oldest ongoing national soccer competition a record-tying three straight years. It's been a spectacular run, but its end may be just a few hours away.

The deck couldn't be more stacked against the Sounders tonight in San Francisco as they face the San Jose Earthquakes (7:30 p.m., live webcast on SJEarthquakes.com) in a quarterfinal match; as they try to extend the streak, we'll see what this team is made of.

After reeling off seven consecutive wins and a draw in their first nine matches, the Sounders are mired in a month-and-a-half-long slump, winless in seven straight MLS contests (they haven't held a lead in any of them) for the first time in franchise history. The latest defeat was particularly painful: 2-1 at Portland on Sunday, before a national television audience. The Sounders' first loss to the Timbers in MLS play also dropped them to last place in the Cascadia Cup standings, after winning the Northwest crown last year.

Seattle's only victories since May 9 have come in the third and fourth rounds of the U.S. Open Cup, setting up tonight's quarterfinal against the Earthquakes, who are as hot as the Sounders are cold. In MLS play over the same span, San Jose has just one loss, at Sporting Kansas City; three victories, all on the road; and two draws, both at home.

San Jose beat the Sounders (that's no longer an exclusive club) earlier this season in Seattle (ditto) and leads the Western Conference--and the league--with 33 points, eight clear of the fourth-place Sounders. The Earthquakes have a force of nature in forward Chris Wondolowski, whose 13 goals (just one less than Eddie Johnson, David Estrada, and Fredy Montero combined) include the controversial penalty kick that beat Seattle on the final day of March. San Jose climbed to the top spot with a 2-1 win Saturday at Real Salt Lake, the team that started the Sounders' skid in mid-May.

What really sets the Earthquakes apart is that their secondary offensive threats, Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon, have five goals apiece, as many as Johnson and Estrada, the Sounders' leading scorers. Gordon, a nine-year MLS veteran, has been especially lethal, coming off the bench in eight of his nine appearances. All five of his goals have come in the 72nd minute or later; two were game-winners, and two earned draws. San Jose is tied for the MLS lead with 31 goals, an average of nearly two per match. Midfielder Marvin Chavez and defender Steven Beitashour pace the Earthquakes with five assists apiece.

The loss at Portland saw the continuation of two more dubious streaks: the Sounders have now given up the first goal in seven straight matches, and have failed to win any of them. And Montero's red card in second-half stoppage time marked the third straight match a Sounder was ejected, following in the footsteps of Alvaro Fernandez last Wednesday against Sporting KC and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado the previous Saturday at Montreal.

Montero's suspension is only for MLS matches, so he'll be able to play tonight. But after going 90-plus minutes in Portland two days ago, should he? The same question goes for midfielders Mauro Rosales and Ozzie Alonso, as well as Johnson--all three played the entire match, and their services will be required on Saturday when the Sounders travel to New England. It's the same story on defense, where Hurtado, Zach Scott, and Marc Burch went all the way in Portland. The return of injured defenders Leo Gonzalez (quad) and Adam Johansson would be a huge boost to a back four stretched thin in recent weeks.

The Sounders have demonstrated over the past three years that winning the U.S. Open Cup is a major priority, and they certainly have the results to prove it. But at what point does the desire for an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup become an impediment to the bigger quest, for success in MLS play?

Seattle's route to the quarterfinals has been relatively easy: the Sounders routed the North American Soccer League's Atlanta Silverbacks 5-1 and demolished amateur side Cal FC--which had shocked the Timbers in Portland the previous week--5-0.

Meanwhile, the Earthquakes were forced to break a sweat in the third round against the NASL's Fort Lauderdale Strikers, falling behind 1-0 in the first half before rookie midfielder Sam Garza's two second-half goals secured a 2-1 win. In the fourth round, it took Lenhart's 85th-minute goal to subdue another NASL team, the Minnesota Stars.

Both matches were played at Stanford University's soccer stadium, giving the Earthquakes a home-field advantage they'll also have tonight, with this match at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. It may not be all that much of an edge: San Jose is just 3-4 at home all-time in U.S. Open Cup play, as opposed to 9-3 on the road.

Garza, who's nursing broken ribs, won't be available tonight. Another midfielder, Simon Dawkins, is out with a sprained shoulder.

Tonight's contest will mark only the fourth time in the past four years the Sounders have played a U.S. Open Cup match anywhere other than Tukwila or Seattle--they won the 2009 Cup at D.C.'s RFK Stadium and played in Portland in 2009 and 2010. If they figure out a way to survive, they'll host either Chivas USA or the USL Pro League's Charlotte Eagles in the semifinals on Wednesday, July 11.

 
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