The Throw-In: USOC final may start big shift in MLS power
As of Thursday morning, the Seattle Sounders are beating their chests like silverback gorillas, rightly boasting of the unique opportunity before them to make history.
No team in the 98-year history of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup has won four straight titles, and the Sounders can become the first to do so if they get past Sporting Kansas City on Aug. 8.
And let’s give them credit – they’ve blazed through this year’s edition of the tournament and mostly dominated, and have backed up all their bluster about how seriously they take America’s oldest competition and how proud they are to be three-time defending champions.
But now let’s slow our roll a little bit. There’s a little stat that deserves some attention: Out of the 18 matches the Sounders have played in the USOC over the past four years, only four have been on the road.
If they’re able to knock off Sporting KC – who, by the way, are 20-6-7 across all competitions at home since Livestrong Sporting Park opened 13 months ago – this may be the most massive achievement of them all.
If they can’t do it, I’m not sure anyone will be too crestfallen. As Sigi Schmid said himself, “There are so many things that can go wrong in a one-off game,” and observers will inevitably say, well, the run had to end some time.
And if the run does end, that will also be a remarkable achievement. That's because Sporting KC will have done something that really hasn’t happened in MLS over the past four years: They’ll have completely shaken up the balance of the elite within the league. And that may signal only the first domino to fall.
Think about that for a second. Since the formation of the CONCACAF Champions League, we’ve been able to measure which teams have been the best in the league on an easily quantifiable scale: by trophies. Because US Soccer awards its berths in the CCL to the Supporters’ Shield winner, the MLS Cup winner and runners-up, and the US Open Cup winner, we’ve had a clear picture of the dominant sides in MLS.
Not surprisingly, that’s been the LA Galaxy, Seattle, Houston and Real Salt Lake, all of whom have participated in the CCL nearly every year since the tournament was reformatted in 2009. Now, we’re nowhere near ready to start crowning our trophy-winners for the 2012 MLS regular season just yet. But take a quick glance at the standings, and you start to understand why things could be flipped on their head by the end of the year for the first time in a long while.
San Jose are sitting atop the Supporters’ Shield race. D.C. United are pushing hard, back on top of the Eastern Conference after more than two years of dark days. And Sporting KC, New York and even Chicago – none of whom have come truly close to winning any hardware in the past four years – have forced themselves into the conversation. Meanwhile, the recent power-brokering Galaxy and Dynamo are struggling to stay afloat in the playoff race.
We can’t predict what will happen over the next four months. But what we do know is that parity is once again winning out in MLS. And when the dust settles at the end of the playoffs, we could very well see four completely new faces earn themselves berths in the Champions League.
But first, in four short weeks, the first salvo could be fired. With a win at home over the three-time defending Open Cup champs on Aug. 8, Sporting KC would become the first qualifier into the 2013-14 CCL.
That wouldn’t only mark the first trophy in eight years for an original MLS franchise, it would also validate all the work Peter Vermes, Robb Heineman and the entire SKC organization have put into reimagining the club over the past four years – just three seasons removed from being one of the worst in the league.
It will be a victory for an innovative attacking system, and a relatively new core of players who have been fighting their tails off for legitimacy in a league that can be very unforgiving. And more than anything else, it will be a sign that things could be changing around MLS, a shuffling of the guard that keeps things fresh and gives all fans hope that their club – no matter how bad things may look right now – can some day join the elite if they put in the work.
On Aug. 8, someone is going to make history indeed. One way or the other.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. "The Throw-In" appears every Thursday.