TUKWILA — Soccer schedules can take a little getting used to for some American sports fans.
Take Seattle Sounders FC’s current run of games, for example. On Saturday, Seattle played a “friendly” against Chelsea FC, which drew more 65,000 fans but meant absolutely nothing in the standings. This weekend, they’re back to league play with a game against Chicago.
And in between those two games, Seattle faces the Houston Dynamo tonight in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals. That’s right, in soccer there are tournaments going on during the regular season. The Open Cup is more than just a tournament for MLS teams, as it is open to club teams at different levels, including the USL, which was the Sounders league before this season.
“They’re trying to figure it out,” Seattle goalkeeper Kasey Keller said of American soccer fans. “It’s a hard thing for anybody who has followed American sports to understand that there are competitions going on within the league and other teams are involved from other leagues. I had somebody from Portland say to me the other day, ‘Why did you have an exhibition game against the Timbers?’ I was like, ‘That was a Cup game,’ and they were like, ‘Oh really. I didn’t know that.’ And these are people that are even into the game.”
And even though tonight’s Cup game at Starfire Sports Complex will feature 60,000 or so fewer fans than the Chelsea friendly, it has plenty of meaning to the teams involved.
“This is the third time we played in the semifinals,” said Seattle forward Sebastien Le Toux, who helped lead the USL Sounders to a pair of Open Cup semifinals. “We lost the first two, I hope this time we win and go to the final. For us this is an important cup. It would be nice to get our first trophy.”
A chance to move a step closer to the expansion franchise’s first title of any sorts should be plenty of motivation for a team playing on short rest. The other challenge is avoiding any sort of letdown after playing in front of a nearly sold-out Qwest Field against one of the world’s top clubs.
“After having watched John Wooden some years when I was playing at UCLA, his philosophy was if you have a really up game, you’re going to have a down game,” said Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid. “So that’s why I never try to hype games too much if you can avoid it. I think the guys were motivated and were ready to play against Chelsea, but I don’t think we spent a ton of emotional energy in terms of leading up to the game. As you become a better pro, you learn how to turn the switch on and turn the switch off again.”
And as Keller points out, “That’s the key thing, that was an exhibition, that wasn’t a big game. A big game is when it matters.”
Tonight’s game does matter, which is why Schmid said he plans on using a good number of his starters. His team should also be more rested than Houston, which had a league game Saturday in Toronto. Not only has Seattle been at home, but it also has the advantage of having substituted liberally against Chelsea, meaning most of the players should be fresh.
Cup rules allow for just five foreign players to suit up, and seeing as he played 74 minutes against Chelsea, Freddie Ljungberg could be one of the foreign players held out today.
For Houston, a win tonight would not only mean a berth in the Cup final, but also a bit of revenge. Seattle beat the first-place Dynamo in a league game in Seattle earlier this month, and Houston went home angry about a controversial Seattle goal that tied the score in the first half.
Two more all stars
Sounders FC forward Fredy Montero and defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado were added to the MLS All-Star roster Monday, giving Seattle four players on the team. Houston coach Dominic Kinnear added the two Seattle players as part of his coaches picks that round out the roster. The First XI, which was chosen by vote of fans, media, players, coaches and GMs, includes Keller and Ljungberg.
“It is a good honor to have that amount of players in the all-star game,” Schmid said.
Houston, which has the best record in Major League Soccer, has five players on the All-Star team, and Seattle is the second-best represented club with its four. The MLS All-Stars face English Premier League team Everton FC in Salt Lake City on July 29.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.