BY Stanley Holmes 11:19PM 10/05/2010

Sounders claim second US Open Cup title

Seattle is first club in 27 years to repeat as champions of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup

Sounders captain Kasey Keller hoists the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open cup trophy on Tuesday night in Qwest Field. (Drew McKenzie/Sports Press Northwest)

Seattle Sounders FC became the first repeat winner of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in 27 years, eclipsing Columbus Crew 2-1 in a match filled with end-to-end action and high drama until the final whistle.

The Sounders set other U.S. Open Cup records, too. With 31,311 fans filling Qwest Field, Seattle hosted the largest audience in the tournament’s 96-year history.  Sanna Nyassi was the first two-goal scorer of an Open Cup final, according to U.S. Soccer Federation sponsors. The club also qualified for a return trip to next year’s CONCACAF Champion’s League, and more importantly in the opinion of coach Sigi Schmid, brought distinction to the second-year franchise.

And another first — the players, led by Fredy Montero, got to spray their coach with bottles of champagne in front of the media.  Schmid took it well. And with the sounds of Lionel Richie’s signature party tune “All Night Long” echoing from earlier in-stadium renditions, it did indeed seem time for a fiesta.

But when the lively group exited the room, a reflective and contented Schmid paused to express what this repeat victory really meant to him. It was about grabbing those rare opportunities to set yourself apart, he said, about truly making a mark for yourself, for your team, for your fans and for your community. That’s why becoming the first team in 27 years to capture back-to-back US Open Cup titles is so meaningful to Schmid. It is excellence achieved — at least until the next contest.

“We wanted to stand out,” said Schmid. “We wanted to be something unique, something different. I’m really proud of what we accomplished.”

Central to the narrative was the fleet-footed Gambian midfielder Nyassi. Lively like a hungry cheetah, he prowled his right flank, searching for the ball and then when grabbing it, stretched defenders with his blitzing speed. His energy led to both goals in front of a throbbing and  boisterous home crowd. Seattle had defeated D.C. United 2-1 last year in the US Open Cup finals at RFK stadium, earning some distinction then for a first-year franchise.

Nyassi, though, clearly distinguished himself on the pitch. He zigged, he zagged, he cut and he streaked up and down the right side, stretching and frustrating Crew defenders. And though it took two years to score his first goal last week against Tornoto FC, Nyassi decided to make up for lost time.

He scored one in each half. First, he brought his team level, rifling a right-footer at the edge of the 18-yard box. Then, he sent Seattle ahead in the second half, when he punched home a rebound from six yards. It is fair to say the Gambian international, who departs Wednesday for Africa Cup qualifiers, will feel no pain on his 14-hour journey back to West Africa.

“I’m very happy Sanna didn’t make me wait another two years for his next goal,” quipped a smiling Schmid.

The quiet, willow-thin Nyassi offered only this modest appraisal: “The chances came tonight and I made sure I finished them.”

The early goings proved challenging. The Crew held together — particularly on defense — maintaining a near impregnable moving wall. With great expectations of lifting the cup at home, the Sounders then lost the plot line. The Crew blitzed forward expertly on counters. They sent U.S. National Team player Frankie Hejduk  streaking down the right flank on overlapping runs to overload the channel. It worked. He sneaked behind defender Tyson Wahl several times, catching the defense confused.

In the 24th minute, Hejduk received the through ball and raced to the end line, with Wahl trailing.  He then pulled the pass back precisely to forward Steven Lenhart, stationed in the middle of the 18-yard box. Once receiving it, he turned and dished it the onrushing Kevin Burns to smash it home for the first goal — what should be a crucial first goal in hostile environment.

That quieted the raucous hometown crowd until Nyassi gave them reason again to believe. In the 38th minute,  a Nathan Sturgis pass in tight space, following a knockdown from a cross, set up Nyassi for his second goal of the season — and a decisive, penetrating strike from the edge of the box.

“Sanna did a great job of finishing his chances tonight,” said Patrick Ianni, who anchored the center of the defense with Jeff Parke.

The Sounders pressed hard throughout both halves. The team maintained the majority of the possession as the players sought openings to push the ball through a tight-marking, congested Columbus defense.

The team’s desire to win, to overcome the challenges, to take advantage of a rare opportunity to win a national cup twice,  motivated them to keep battling even after falling behind 1-nil. “We fight really hard,” Ianni said. “We showed a lot of character.”

The Sounders eventually slipped the ball through some openings. Steve Zakuani and Nyassi kicked their engines into high gear. They began to stretch Columbus, creating gaps for others to fill with the ball.  The reward came in the 66th minute. Nyassi slapped home a rebound courtesy of a Zakuani header that had just hit the crossbar. The play began when Montero lofted a diagonal ball to Zakuani camped out in the left corner.

But The Crew refused to die. Led by the crafty and skilled Argentine striker Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Columbus continued to threaten with quick and potentially devastating counterattacks. The Crew nearly pulled even in the 85th minute. Substitute Robbie Rogers got his foot on a driving cross and sent a rocket that bent the crossbar — beating everybody —  including Kasey Keller.  ”We caught a break when they hit the crossbar,” Schmid said.

Such was the kind of scintillating drama played out over 90 emotional minutes — punctuated by technical perfection and plain end-to-end action. Both teams gave everything to win. Both teams deserved to win. But only the Sounders did.

A clearly emotional and philosophical Schmid acknowledged the battle he had just won, and the longer campaigns that had gone up and down over the course of this season. Getting knocked out of the Champions League group stage was a downer. So was the first half of the season; losing early is not pleasant. But he insisted it is these moments — moments of struggle that made his squad stronger and capable of pulling off a repeat title.

In the end, nothing beats winning — and even better — winning with distinction. “Losing motivates me to work harder,” Schmid said, “and winning keeps me going everyday.”


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