Zach Scott had hardly taken his seat in the Providence Park stands when a roar rose from fans in every direction. Looking around the stadium, Scott could see a significant number of people hadn’t even filed into the stadium yet.
As he cheered with the small pocket of traveling Seattle fans surrounded by a bleak cone of silence, Scott could hardly take in the scene. It was just 48 seconds into Sounders FC’s first Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match as an MLS franchise in the summer of 2009, and Roger Levesque had already scored. Against the hated Portland Timbers, no less.
Was this really happening?
What occurred next wouldn’t just become fodder for Scott’s memory. It morphed into the touchstone for the beginnings of one of the most remarkable cup runs in American soccer history. Levesque turned away from the spot of his goal and ran to teammate Nate Jaqua, who swung an invisible ax and felled Levesque to the turf.
“It was one of those very surreal moments, and what a guy to do it but Roger,” said Scott, who traveled to the match ostensibly as a fan since he wasn’t on the game day roster. “And especially Nate being an Oregon guy as well. How many times has somebody talked about planning a celebration and it never pans out? And those two bozos do it.”
The moment is as much a part of Sounders FC lore as any other in history. It launched a run of three consecutive U.S. Open Cup titles and four in six seasons. Since 2009, Seattle’s been in the cup final every year but one, and in 2012 the club became the first in more than 40 years to win it in three consecutive years. The trophy has been on near permanent retainer in Seattle since the team joined MLS.
More notably, that goal pushed Levesque into a notable pantheon of Sounders FC players who’ve made an indelible mark on the club’s history through their performances in U.S. Open Cup matches. More than any other MLS club, Sounders FC has forged its own grouping of legends based on its crowded cup trophy case. And on July 1, 2009, Levesque became the first to join in the MLS era.
So in a number of ways, Levesque will be falling, limbs stock-still, to the Providence Park turf as long as the club exists.
“I still see him falling down,” said Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid. “I still see the chopping, and I still see him falling down.”
The U.S. Open Cup’s modern era didn’t really start until 1995. In the decades that preceded the tournament’s modern beginnings, it was mostly a tournament for amateur clubs, as the U.S. weaved in and out of bouts with sustainable professional outdoor leagues. Notably, the NASL in the 1970’s and through its collapse in the mid-1980’s didn’t release its teams to compete in the competition. So when the club returned as Sounders FC in 1995 alongside the strongly rebranded A-League, its true beginnings as a cup team began.
In this new modern era, Sounders FC’s first win was as monumental as all firsts. Shawn Medved etched his name into team lore by bagging a hat trick to lead Seattle to a 9-2 win over the incredibly-named Everett Bigfoot in the First Round. Interestingly enough, then-Sounders FC coach Alan Hinton used four backups and pulled three players off the field late in the match, as the game finished 11-on-eight. The cup chase hasn’t abated since.
The team’s run to the semifinals in 1995 began an enduring legacy at the U.S. Open Cup. Since that year, Sounders FC has been in the competition every year except two, and the club has a deeper history as a lower division team looking for respect from MLS than it does as one of the prohibitive favorites.
“For a big part of our early existence, it was just proving ourselves against MLS clubs,” said Scott, who joined the Sounders in 2002. “Being second division USL at the time, you were kind of looked at as not good enough to play in MLS. So for a lot of guys it was their opportunity because they had either dropped down from MLS teams or because they were trying to reach that goal.”
And their first serious scalp came in 2003, when Kyle Smith scored in the 41st minute to give Seattle an unlikely 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes. Smith’s goal in front of 2,510 at Husky Stadium on a balmy August evening knocked off MLS’ then-No. 1 team and gave Sounders FC its first true signature win against a first tier team. Smith, who was discovered at an invite-only camp in 2001 a year after he finished college, became one of the team’s earliest cup heroes.
"I'm so thrilled, I'm speechless," then-Sounders FC coach Brian Schmetzer told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer after the match. "I thought coming in, if we believed we could win, then we had a chance."
In the pre-MLS era, back-to-back semifinal runs in 2007 and 2008 set the tone for the avalanche readying its collapse on MLS. And one of the great icons of Seattle soccer was about to push down the stopper on the dynamite.
Levesque’s goal and celebration against the Timbers in 2009 was undoubtedly his most memorable moment of that campaign, but it probably wasn’t his most important. Sounders FC chalked up wins over Portland, Sporting KC and the Houston Dynamo to reach the final, and journeyman midfielder Stephen King best exemplified Seattle’s next man up attitude in the competition. King scored just three league goals in his four-year MLS career, but in the span of three weeks in July of 2009 he scored two U.S. Open Cup match winners. That included a 94th minute extra time tally to drop the Dynamo in the semifinal at Starfire Stadium.
Levesque popped up again in the final against D.C. United on the road at RFK Stadium. After Fredy Montero gave Seattle a lead in the 67th minute, Levesque scored the ultimate winner in the 86th en route to a 2-1 victory and the club’s first trophy of the MLS era.
Levesque finished Seattle’s cup run in 2009 the same way he started it: with emphasis.
“There was enough of a presence and carryover from the USL team into the MLS team,” Levesque said. “Whether that was ownership, coaching staff, players like Zach Scott, Taylor Graham, myself, Sebastian Le Toux. All guys who at that point found time on the field during Open Cup games where, to be honest, it was our opportunity to play. I think along with a lot of the values that have been with the Sounders and that have pushed this organization forward, the Open Cup was something that carried over as well into MLS.”
For a number of players striving for more minutes in MLS matches on weekends, midweek U.S. Open Cup matches were a proving ground. Jaqua, for instance, started just 10 league matches during the 2010-2011 seasons and scored zero goals. But he was a terror in the cup over the same span, scoring six times in eight matches to guide Seattle to its second and then third consecutive cup titles.
Sanna Nyassi can relate. The speedy winger only scored two goals in league play during his two seasons with Sounders FC in 2009 and 2010. He matched that in a single cup game: the 2010 final. He became the first player in the modern era to score twice in the competition’s final to guide Seattle to a 2-1 win over Columbus Crew SC. Those were the only cup matches he ever scored for Sounders FC.
Jaqua’s seven career U.S. Open Cup goals in the MLS era tie him for the franchise lead with Montero, who helped build his legend in Seattle thanks in part to his dominance in the cup. Before either, Sebastian Le Toux was cementing his status as a player of record: his competition-leading five goals each in the 2007 and 2008 cup campaigns guided Sounders FC to back-to-back semifinals. And just last year, in Sounders FC’s run to a fourth U.S. Open Cup, Kenny Cooper joined this estimable league of cup legends by scoring a monstrous six goals in five cup games, doubling his output in league play.
From the top of the depth chart to the bottom, Sounders FC’s dedication to the U.S. Open Cup knows no equal in MLS. A host of players who share special memories from the tournament know that better than anyone.
“We’ve got a great record in it because we have a lot of guys who maybe aren’t starting MLS games but who are hopefully looking forward to those Open Cup games to prove themselves,” Scott said. “I think everybody who’s stepped on that field has taken it very seriously. There are a lot of heroes of our U.S. Open Cup runs. You look at a guy like Kenny Cooper [in 2014], who was tremendous for us and scored a lot of goals. All around I think everybody enjoys the tournament.”