At some point late in the Seattle Sounders' run to a fourth straight U.S. Open Cup final last year, the press was talking to Zach Scott about what the tournament meant to him. Scott, as you know, is the longest tenured player on the team, having played for the Sounders since 2002. More than any other player, he knows and understands the team's relationship with this 100-year-old, one-loss-and-you're-done competition and he's always good for a nice broad quote to tie together whatever story you may be working on.
On this day, he didn't disappoint.
"This is our tournament," he said.
There was more to the quote, but I'm basically going off memory here and I don't entirely feel like finding my notes. But that was the important part. Scott speaks from the heart and it was clear that the Open Cup had a special place in his.
It's not hard to see why.
Even before Scott made the leap with the Sounders from the USL to MLS, the Open Cup had become part of the club's DNA. Throughout their USL days, the Sounders had developed a knack for giant-killing and had regularly knocked off MLS opponents. During their 2007 run to the semifinals, they knocked off two before falling to FC Dallas in overtime. The following season, they took down two more before losing to the USL's Charleston Battery in a semifinal shootout. Starting with a 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes at Husky Soccer Field in 2003, the USL Sounders had actually gone 3-2-1 against MLS teams.
They didn't lose any of that edge once they became the giants, themselves. Heading into Wednesday's game against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the MLS Sounders had compiled a 15-0-2 record and outscored their opponents 39-11 in the main draw of the Open Cup. Their unbeaten streak was actually 22 matches (the record books count penalty shootouts as ties), which provided a very clear line of succession from the USL era.
It was an interrupted run of success that no team can in the MLS era can really even come close to matching. The only team with an even comparable run is the Chicago Fire, who advanced to five finals and won four titles between 1998 and 2006.
Scott wasn't the only one who felt as though this tournament essentially belonged to the Sounders. Many a Sounders fan felt the same way and considering how many more of us only really started taking an active interest in the team in 2009, that makes sense. The first time I ever rooted for the Sounders, in fact, was during the 2009 Open Cup final against D.C. United.
I had only moved to Seattle a couple weeks earlier. My wife and I decided to check out the game at the George & Dragon and were absolutely hooked. From then on, I never missed an Open Cup game. I remember standing arm-in-arm with several fellow SBNers as we suffered through the penalty shootout against the Portland Timbers in 2010. I remember my first taste of the Starfire experience later that year. I remember falling in love with the nation's longest continually running tournament.
There had been close calls before, of course. There was the 1-0 "Battle of Kezar;" erasing a 1-0 deficit in the 2010 final against the Columbus Crew; surviving that penalty shootout against the Timbers earlier that year; and that dramatic finish in 2009 in which the Sounders scored the equalizer in the 89th minute and the winner in stoppage time to dump the Houston Dynamo.
But the Sounders had always figured out a way to move through. When they were awarded a penalty in the 85th minute against the Rowdies on Wednesday, it seemed like they had their chance to do it again. As we know, the Sounders came up short this time. Obafemi Martins struck his penalty well, but Diego Restreppo guessed right and turned it away.
It was a particularly gut-wrenching way to go down, lacking any legitimate silver linings. Maybe it was fitting that a team that made its name by taking down giants -- often times by taking advantage of their home field -- would have the tables turned on them in such a way.
This tournament no longer belongs to the Sounders. If last year's loss to Sporting KC suggested they might just be loaning it out, the loss to the Rowdies was a clear relinquishment. The Sounders could very well reclaim their status, but it will feel different, with a far less clear connection to the USL days. In the meantime, let's hope whoever takes ownership treats it with as much love and respect as the Sounders did.