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Seattle Sounders vs. Chicago Fire - U.S. Open Cup Final: Three Questions

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Seattle Sounders
Seattle Sounders

On Tuesday, October 4, 2011, the Chicago Fire will take the field in Seattle in their quest to claim a historic fifth U.S. Open Cup title.  A fifth title would bring the Fire into a tie for the most U.S. Open Cups titles ever.  The Seattle Sounders will be looking for their own history as a win for them would mean 3 U.S. Open cup titles in a row.  That would tie another U.S. Open Cup record and bring Seattle oh so close to tying Chicago for titles overall.

In order to get some insider perspective on Seattle and talk a little U.S. Open Cup history, we turn to Dave Clark of Sounder at Heart.  To get things started, we start with a bonus question.  The rest of the questions and answers in the exchange are after the break.

Hot Time in Old Town asks Sounder at Heart

Bonus: What is your favorite U.S. Open Cup run?

I'm part of that rare breed that followed the A-League/USL Seattle Sounders, so for me the 2009 run was particularly special. After falling in the semis two years in a row, it was an excellent was to signify that the team had taken the step from D2 to D1 successfully. It also included a win over the Portland Timbers down in Portland, the Zombie Jaqua performance at Starfire when he played in a no number shirt with a bandage around his head and was capped off by beating DC United at RFK. After they had there little "we win trophies" campaign, knocked prices down to like 2$ for anything and still couldn't sell 20,000 seats it was great to watch Seattle win that one. My only wish is that I'd been one of the hundreds of fans that met the team at the airport when they flew in at 3AM.

1. Fredy Montero has 5 goals and 3 assists in the Sounders last 6 MLS games. This is after having 5 goals and 3 assists in the previous 16 MLS games. Has Montero's role on the team shifted throughout the year or is he just on a massive hot streak?

Fredy had a broken wrist early in the season and missed a few games (including the April match against the Fire), later playing with a cast. That cast seemed to mess with his balance a bit, and his shooting was well off during the stretch. While the 5 & 3 in 6 isn't standard production for him, he's clearly better this year than in the past. His passing vision and runs for quick interchanges have improved, he's faster and his ability to hit the game changing shot is proven. Still, he's on a hot streak, which will end eventually.

2. Both Chicago and Seattle won their Reserves League Division before the games were even finished. Orr Barouch and Cristian Nazarit lead the way for Chicago Reserves and each player made contributions to Chicago's USOC run but probably won't see much time on Tuesday night. Are there some unsung heroes on Seattle's squad that helped the Reserves and USOC success and deserve some praise here because they won't be getting it on Tuesday?

Several players used the Reserve League to get older players ready to complete in league matches. Zach Scott, Tyson Wahl, Lamar Neagle and Mike Fucito all took strong Reserves performance and turned them into regular season time where they've still been successful. Sigi has used a pretty thourough rotation of players throughout the season going about 20 deep, so it isn't like he's using a 2nd team in any US Open Cup game except for the Kitsap Pumas one. Now, he has set it up so the match Tuesday night will feature an ideal XI contigent on health, not fitness.

3. What room do the Seattle Sounders have to expand in the Seattle market? At what point if not already does Seattle brand themselves as America's team in a similar fashion to the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, or Los Angeles Lakers that have fans from coast to coast?

There's plenty of room to expand the fanbase within the Greater Puget Sound. It's not like these "sell-outs" actually fill the stadium. Using the various friendlies as guides there are probably about 5,000 to 25,000 Sounders fans that don't have season tickets and likely another 50,000+ soccer fans who basically ignore their local team. That's just within the demographics that could be season ticket holders as local TV ratings are strong. Step one to changing all of that is to win trophies. Within sports marketing that's always the fastest way to grow the audience. Step two is to continue down the path of Democracy in Sports and fan empowerment. Lasting legacy connections to the team as an organization and symbol of the community help during the future down eras, while also helping get more notice throughout the greater Seattle sports environment. I hope that the Sounders front office doesn't actively pursue a national branding as being a team for more than Seattle. The area isn't tapped yet, and it would be inauthentic to grow beyond Washington state until it is. Still, the team and supporters groups should work to include the diaspora of fans that have connections to Seattle but no longer live here. The most active of these groups is the SoCal Sound which helps flood the HDC twice a year.

Sounder at Heart asks Hot Time In Old Town

Bonus: What is your favorite U.S. Open Cup run?

My favorite U.S. Open Cup run is definitely 1998. The opening draw was a PDL team, the Chicago Stingers. The Fire had just won 11 straight games over MLS teams so what's a little PDL team? In the magic of the U.S. Open Cup, the Stingers' Joe Carver broke first blood in the 22nd minute and they were just praying they could hold the lead from there. Finally Frank Klopas scored the Chicago Fire's historic first U.S. Open Cup goal in the 80th minute. Diego Gutierrez and Josh Wolff scored in the 83rd and 87th minutes respectively and the final score was 3-1. Chicago survived a nail-bitter. The Fire had to travel to San Jose in mid-July in the next round. This time the nail-bitter came in the form of penalty kicks which they came out of victorious 4-3 after the game finished 1-1. 

In the Semi-Finals, Chicago faced Dallas at Zephyr Field in New Orleans, Louisiana. This was ironic because Chicago played San Jose at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas in the previous round. Either way, the Burn as they were called at the time had already lost to Chicago 3 times in MLS Regular Season play (scores of 1-0, 4-1, and 1-0). Dallas was itching for revenge but they wouldn't get it until they dominated the Brimstone Cup in the 2000's. Chicago's Ante Razov scored an early goal. Dallas' Mickey Trotman answered 11 minutes later. After haltime, Roman Kosecki made it 2-1 and Lubos Kubik added on an insurance goal for Chicago halfway through the second half. Leonel Alvarez converted a penalty kick in the 83rd minute for the Burn but Chicago held on to advance to the U.S. Open Cup Final in their expansion year. 

The final that year was late on the calendar. It was scheduled for October 30th. Chicago had won the MLS Cup five days prior in a 2-0 win over D.C. United. Geographical rival Columbus Crew was the opponent. Chicago played their typical physical style (25 fouls vs. Columbus' 15) and the teams were all tied up going into overtime. As overtime began, Frank Klopas, a man who had gone to high school in Chicago and led his school to the city's soccer title, entered the game for Ritchie Kotschau. On a corner kick in the 99th minute, Klopas found the ball and put it in the back of the net. The ‘hometown hero', the player who scored the Fire's first U.S. Open Cup goal, the man who scored the Fire's first goal in Chicago, had scored the last goal of the 1998 season and delivered the U.S. Open Cup to the people of this great city. On Tuesday, that same Frank Klopas leads the Fire into battle as head coach. No matter what happens, Klopas will always be the hero of Chicago's first U.S. Open Cup trophy.

1. What player has changed the fortunes of the Fire from first half to second the most?

The player who has changed the team's fortunes the most has to be Dominic Oduro. If you split up the first 17 games from the rest of the season, the difference between the Chicago Fire's 1st and 2nd half has been having a reliable goal-scoring threat. It is true that Sebastian Grazzini and Pavel Pardo have raised the bar for the Fire's passing attack. It is also true that if Chicago brought in Grazzini and Pardo to pass the ball to forwards like Cristian Nazarit, Orr Barouch, and Diego Chaves, those three would likely be missing shots or hitting the post like they so frustratingly did in the first half of the year.

Oduro went from being used primarily as a wing player who scored 4 goals in 16 games to the top striker who scored 8 goals in 14 games. Those goals mean even more to a team that has 16 ties this year. He is the reason the Fire have started winning some games instead of tying every time.

2. With all the attention on the Fire's offensive reawakening, people may not know that In 6 of the last 8 matches Chicago has given up 1 goal or less. What's been the defensive key?

The stretch you are keying in on coincides with Frank Klopas giving the starting center back position to Jalil Anibaba after the Fire acquired Dan Gargan to play RB. Anibaba has proved to be an upgrade over Josip Mikulic and Yamith Cuesta while Gargan has proven to be an upgrade over the player the Fire had starting at RB: Jalil Anibaba. On the left side of defense, Cory Gibbs and Gonzalo Segares continue to provide their same stellar play like they have all year long.

That gives too much credit to the Gargan/Anibaba move that is more of a simple tweak. With Frank Klopas as head coach, the Fire have given up 21 goals in 20 MLS games and just 22 goals in 23 games if you include USOC matches. Together, Sean Johnson in goal and Dan Gargan, Jalil Anibaba, Cory Gibbs, and Gonzalo Segares from right to left make up a unit that has gelled well and presents any opponent with a host of challenges.

3. Is this US Open Cup run the signs of a positive future of the Hauptman era Fire?

This is a classic case of going to the Magic 8-Ball and getting the answer ‘Reply hazy, try again later'. The positives are the team showed an early commitment to the U.S. Open Cup. Chicago won bids to host some of the games. The team put forwarded a strong starting lineup in each game. Other positives include investing in the youth teams, adding a team store to Toyota Park after not having one, a continued great relationship between supporters and the front office, maintaining the same price for 2012 season ticket prices, expanding the Fire brand locally/regionally. Supporters of the club are generally happy with the direction of the team.

Then big questions remain like why the team still doesn't have a jersey sponsor, a radio partner or a consistent TV partner. Is Andrew Hauptman staying out of the way of Frank Klopas and Klopas has an organic build-up the core of the team approach or did Klopas just get lucky with his modest additions and Hauptman does not want to spend big on players?

Right now the fans don't know because Hauptman and his front office keep their cards close to their chest. That's one management style and right now it's hard to argue with the results but it sure was frustrating not knowing the upper management's thoughts when things looked very dark this summer. 2012 will be a big test of what the Hauptman Era can achieve. Certain players like Marco Pappa and Dominic Oduro have demonstrated desires to play aboard. Pavel Pardo's contract is up at the end of the year. Fire fans have tasted a return to a winning streak. For a franchise so use to success, a quick fall back to the bottom would be unacceptable. I personally think things are on the right track but fans are like passengers on a bus right now. All we can see is what we are driving past. We can't see the map and where this road is going just yet.