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USOC aftermath: San Jose Earthquakes go home unhappy but tournament gets shot in the arm

"Well, uh... candlesticks always make a nice gift, and uh, maybe you could find out where she's registered and maybe a place-setting or maybe a silverware pattern...."
"Well, uh... candlesticks always make a nice gift, and uh, maybe you could find out where she's registered and maybe a place-setting or maybe a silverware pattern...."

The mood at Kezar Stadium was one of optimism for the 7000+ Earthquakes fans (and few hundred intrepid Sounders supporters) that arrived layered in their winter clothing, but pleasantly surprised to find that San Francisco’s legendary fall weather had made a sneak-peek appearance. The lack of fog and wind kept the fans comfortable, but the unlikely City warmth translated to an increase in the heat on the field.

Looking past the final score — a 1-0 smash-and-grab victory for the Seattle Sounders in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal contest — the night was marred by inconsistent refereeing, a late-match host of yellow cards and a red card to Earthquakes forward Alan Gordon, and a post-game melee that was sparked by an altercation between Sounders forward Eddie Johnson and Earthquakes reserve defender Jed Zayner.

The details of the conflagration between the two players has been hashed out elsewhere, with both sides claiming difference accounts of the incident and video evidence being spotty at best. Did Johnson hit Zayner, did Zayner provoke Johnson? The supposed fight will likely drift more into anecdotal recollections, but the repercussions will certainly be felt for some time to come.

However, beyond the deplorable behavior from both sides, the night was a success in its own right as yet again in this year’s tournament, the Open Cup garnered the attention of the domestic soccer fan in a way that has been missing in past years. Perhaps Eric Wynalda’s plucky Cal FC squad is no longer in the tournament, but their story still resonates in conversation. The Sounders continued run toward an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup championship remains on track following the victory over San Jose. On the whole, the Kezar quarterfinal was the kind of positive advertisement of the tournament that can further be built upon for the 100th edition of the U.S. Open Cup in 2013.

Okay, to be clear, the inconsistent refereeing, the reckless challenges, the post-game fisticuffs — these are not what would generally qualify as qualities in a positive advertisement of the Cup. But they are all ingredients in what can and should highlight the uniqueness of the tournament in the U.S. professional sporting landscape. Following the match on Tuesday, one fan on Twitter summed up the evening perfectly:

For a tournament struggling to gain much foothold in even the most ardent of domestic soccer fans, the Sounders versus Quakes quarterfinal served up a healthy dose of what a knock-out Cup competition can strive to be. The best equivalent in American sports is college basketball’s March Madness, where pride for one’s alma mater rules interest and office betting pools elevate the event to pay-attention-to-above-all-else status. The Open Cup could attain that status too, especially with its national footprint and mixture of professional and amateur entrants. Big upsets, David vs. Goliath battles, Cinderella runs — plus the added interest of cash prizes and big silver trophies. The steps leading up to the bandwagon are extended; grab the railing and hop aboard.

Looking back at the events of that atypical June San Francisco evening, the Cup benefitted not just from the 90 minutes of action on the field, but the energy surrounding the match in and out of the stands. Officially 7219 people were in attendance Tuesday night, a number that is sure to grow when this game is remembered through the years by those that were there or wished to be there.

Even before the opening whistle, the whole evening had a unique energy about it, in no small part because of Kezar being a prototypical neighborhood stadium. Bars and restaurants in the adjacent Haight Street area were bustling with soccer fans wearing the kits of their favorite clubs. The masses moved through the streets and toward to front gate of the stadium — one single gate, folks — and squeezed themselves into the historic ground. At first, Seattle supporters were segregated to one side of the field, with their impressive traveling numbers facing the main grandstand that was filling in nicely with Quakes fans.

When the public address system experienced a glitch and starting the national anthem, first the Sounders supporters, then the Earthquakes supporters sang their own rendition. The two squads of players broke ranks for the pregame handshake in unison with their singing supporters, creating an unusual logjam of salutatory greetings at midfield. The referee corps’ confusion at the whole affair provided a foreboding sign that more of the same could be expected.

The sun setting low in the western sky cast shadows across Kezar Stadium, highlighting the imperfections of the pitch surface and relaying the reason for a match bereft of quality ground-based possession. The narrowness of the field also limited some of the beautiful soccer that the Earthquakes had made their style at Buck Shaw Stadium in the early months of the 2012 season. Conditions were off-kilter, and the game exemplified those very qualities.

Their Cup tournament run ended, the San Jose Earthquakes can go about their business of keeping up their fine run in league play. The failure to get by a wounded Seattle team will quickly dissolve from the players and coaching when they are asked about the match, and they will invariably state that success in the league is what is most important. However, the series of events Tuesday night are likely to embed themselves in their minds, and perhaps next year and beyond opportunities to make a complete Cup run will not as easily be forsaken. Winning matters, trophies matter, tournament purses matter — maybe just for the Sounders in 2012, but hopefully for many more in the years to come.