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Sounders hope to restore U.S. Open Cup glory

It has been five years since the Sounders last won an Open Cup game.

SOCCER: APR 10 MLS - San Diego Loyal SC at Seattle Sounders FC Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

TUKWILA, Wash. — The Seattle Sounders have won the U.S. Open Cup four times, as many as any team during the MLS era and just one shy of the all-time record. Since 2009, they’ve accumulated a 23-6-5 record in the tournament, easily the best winning percentage. That includes a 19-2-2 record at home and a 17-1-1 record at Starfire Stadium.

But their recent history is not nearly as impressive. The Sounders last won an Open Cup match in 2017, when they beat the Portland Timbers in the fourth round before being bounced by the San Jose Earthquakes a round later.

The Sounders come into Wednesday’s match against the USL Championship’s San Diego Loyal riding a three-match winless streak. It’s the longest they’ve gone between wins since losing three straight from 2003-2006 when they were still in the USL.

As recently as last week, Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer had expressed a willingness to pull out some extra stops in order to change that. While some injuries have forced him to dial back his more audacious plans, expectations remain high for this tournament.

“We assembled a roster we truly believe in, it’s not just rhetoric,” Sounders GM Craig Waibel said. “Anytime we put them on the field we expect to win, I don’t care what combination of players we put out there.

“This club stands for championships, they’ve won championships and we are one win away from tying the all-time record for most U.S. Open Cups. We might be interested in that. We have some ego involved.”

What we know about San Diego

This will be the first time the Sounders have ever faced Loyal in a real competition, although they did play them in a preseason game in 2021. Tacoma Defiance also faced San Diego five times in 2020-21 when both were in the USL Championship. Defiance went 3-2-0 in those games.

Through the first three seasons of Loyal’s existence, they were probably best known for being the team coached by Landon Donovan. He’s still involved with the team, but no longer coaching them.

In his place is Nate Miller, a former Loyal assistant who has brought in an aggressive three-centerback formation that leans heavily on attacking wingbacks and even encourages the goalkeeper to be involved in the buildup. Most of the time that’s Spaniard Koke Vegas, who spent four seasons as a backup for Levante in La Liga, but last week featured 16-year-old Duran Ferree.

San Diego has ridden their defense to second in the USL Championship’s Western Conference, having allowed just five goals in seven games.

“We did a bunch of fieldwork on them,” Schmetzer said. “We treat this as a normal day. Everything is the same, we’re preparing as if it’s a MLS match.”

What’s the lineup going to look like?

When asked directly who would start in goal, Schmetzer said “it’s not going to be Stefan Frei.” He was not willing to show much more of his hand than that.

Presumably, Stefan Cleveland will get the nod, just as he did last year. The obvious centerback pairing would be Xavier Arreaga and AB Cissoko, the two first-teamers who haven’t started any MLS games this year. Reed Baker-Whiting, Ethan Dobbelaere, Dylan Teves and Sota Kitahara are the other field players without MLS starts this year and all seem likely get long runs against San Diego. Fredy Montero is a veteran who seems to love playing in the Open Cup and is a solid bet to start as well.

That still leaves three starting spots unfilled, and glaring openings at left back, the No. 9 spot and one of the defensive midfielder positions if the Sounders stick with their 4-2-3-1 formation.

Further complicating the lineup is a handful of injuries and ailments that could leave the Sounders a little thin for Saturday’s match at Real Salt Lake. Cristian Roldan (concussion) and Nouhou (sickness) have been ruled out by Schmetzer, while Josh Atencio (adductor) might not be fully fit. Danny Leyva would have also been in line to start if not for his loan to the Rapids on Tuesday.

“We went from an extremely deep roster to a little thinner roster,” Schmetzer said. “That sometimes puts you in a bind. Had we not had some injuries, we’d have more regular guys on the field. We’re going to put as many first-team guys as I think is necessary, as many as I think is precautionary.”

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