Suddenly it’s more than just a championship game for D.C. United. Now it appears pride is at stake.
After United and Seattle Sounders FC won their semifinal games in the U.S. Open Cup last month, the U.S. Soccer Federation accepted bids from both clubs to host the title game. United was eventually granted the game - much to the displeasure of Seattle’s front office.
A spat of sorts ensued between the two clubs, drumming up intrigue for Wednesday’s final at RFK Stadium.
Seattle general manager Adrian Hanauer set off the bickering by questioning United’s drawing power. The Sounders have the highest attendance in MLS, averaging more than 30,000 fans a game.
“A game in front of 10,000 fans at RFK I don’t believe is going to raise the profile as much as a game in front of a sold-out Qwest Field,” Hanauer said last month.
United attracted just 8,212 fans for the final last year when it beat Charleston Battery of USL1.
United president Kevin Payne responded to Hanauer with a media blitz, using full-page newspaper advertisements and beefing up United’s online presence to drum up attendance for the final and remind the Sounders that United has won 12 trophies in 14 years.
“As a club we were insulted by some of the inferences we drew from the comments that came out of Seattle,” Payne said Friday. “Competition is good. Adrian felt what he said and meant it. We didn’t manufacture this, and I meant what I said. I don’t have any personal animosity to Adrian. I hope that our fans and D.C. sports fans will turn out and demonstrate that he was wrong about the kind of support we are going to get for this game. Early ticket sales suggest that he is wrong.”
Payne says he expects up to 20,000 for the game. The club has pulled out all the stops to attract a crowd, lowering ticket prices to $12 - the same price United charged the year it won its first trophy in 1996. Concessions prices have also been lowered to 1996 levels. Hot dogs and domestic beers will cost just $2.
While Seattle draws almost twice as many fans as United, logistical constraints limited the club’s bid to a 1 p.m. West Coast start time on a Tuesday. Seattle also plays on a turf field at Qwest Field, which it shares with the NFL’s Seahawks. United plays on the preferred grass surface at RFK.
“Just because [Seattle] thought it was fine to put it on at 1 o’clock in the afternoon doesn’t mean U.S. Soccer or Fox Soccer Channel think that’s fine,” Payne said. “Seattle knew the bidding process. They just weren’t happy with the outcome. We certainly stressed the fact that ours is a grass field and it’s not going to have any football markings on it. This is an almost hundred-year-old competition, and [the venue] should be more traditional.”
Payne, who as a young player competed in the early rounds of the U.S. Open Cup, challenged U.S. Soccer to invest more in the oft-neglected tournament or scrap it.
“I think U.S. Soccer needs to attach a significant cash prize to it, like a million dollars,” Payne said. “I think the teams in our league would take it a lot more seriously and it will grow in stature. Either that or we should stop it.”
The Open Cup is America’s oldest soccer event fashioned after England’s popular F.A. Cup, but most MLS teams see it as a distraction from other competitions and field weak teams. The $100,000 prize money, which goes directly to the players, offers clubs little incentive.
The event, which was founded in 1914, is open to all clubs, amateur and professional. MLS teams first entered in 1996, and United became the first MLS team to win it that year.
“It’s an event that takes some explaining,” Payne said. “It’s a little like the U.S. Open golf tournament. Thousands of people start the process of trying to qualify for that, and every year there’s a couple of people that come out of the weeds and end up qualifying. That’s part of the romance of the tournament.”