I WON'T exaggerate and claim that if the Union beats Seattle tonight at PPL Park and captures the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, it will be as big as if it makes the playoffs and wins the MLS championship.

The MLS Cup is the ultimate goal of professional soccer in the United States. It is this sport's equivalent of winning the Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup or NBA Finals.

In comparison, winning the Open Cup would be like winning the . . . well, there is no real equivalent in any other U.S. professional sport.

The Open Cup is unique to soccer. If you are familiar with the game, you know it is like the FA Cup in England, the Copa Del Rey in Spain, the Coppa Italia or the Coupe de France.

If you are still a bit confused about soccer, the best way to describe the U.S. Open Cup is that it is championship of club soccer in the USA. The competition is open to all teams affiliated with the United States Soccer Federation - meaning it is open to an amateur team such as Stanislaus United Turlock Express, an adult team with U.S. Club Soccer, but not Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal, of MLS, because they are based in Canada.

The winner of the U.S. Open Cup also gets one of the four U.S. bids into the 24-team CONCACAF Champions League, which crowns the club champion for the North American, Central American and Caribbean region as designated by FIFA.

Since soccer is still fighting to climb the ladder in the hierarchy of sports in the United States, it's surprising to some that U.S. Open Cup, which was first contested in 1913-14, is the world's third-longest running open soccer tournament, behind only the FA Cup (1871- 72) and the KNVB Beker (the Netherlands, 1898.) Since MLS teams began participating in the Open Cup in 1996, the Rochester (N.Y.) Rhinos in 1999 are the only non-MLS team to win.

So, yes, it is still a big deal, especially since the 5-year-old Union franchise has yet to put any hardware in its championship cabinet.

"I am from [Philadelphia]," said Union interim manager Jim Curtin, the Oreland native who is 11-4-4 in all matches since taking over on June 10. "As a player [with the Chicago Fire], I've won the trophy two times and lost it once.

"I don't want that losing feeling for Philadelphia. As the coach, I feel the weight. I don't want to let the city down. The toughest thing for a club to do is to get that first trophy. Once you get the first one, confidence grows. Then when people talk about the Philadelphia Union, they say they are a champion. That changes things."

The Open Cup is such a big deal for the Union that Curtin took a calculated risk in putting together his starting lineup for Saturday's huge match against the New York Red Bulls.

Despite being in a race for an MLS playoff spot, Curtin did not start several regulars, so that they would be fresh for tonight's match with reigning Open Cup champion Seattle.

The Union tied New York, 2-2, to earn a point.

"I wrestled with that," Curtin said. "Do we play our starters with a quick turnaround on Tuesday knowing that Seattle played Friday and would have an extra day's rest? I think we preserved some legs.

"There are still six more MLS games in the year. With the Open Cup final, our guys only get one crack at that. Seattle is the best team in the league right now. I'm not going to say they are not.

"We respect them, but we don't fear them. My group doesn't fear anybody. We'll be ready to go."

Union all-time scorer Sebastien Le Toux was a member of the 2009 Seattle squad that won the Open Cup in its inaugural season.

"It's a special opportunity," Le Toux said of winning a trophy. "All of us as players want to, at least one time, know what it feels like to be a champion - even if it is a small tournament or a big tournament.

"Winning a championship brings great joy. That is what we want for this team. We want to bring the first trophy to this franchise. I've tried to show leadership and my experience of having played in one final."

When Curtin replaced John Hackworth as manager, making a serious push for the Open Cup championship was high on his agenda.

"There are only two trophies this franchise can play for this season," he said. "It is time for this franchise to win a trophy."

The U.S. Open Cup trophy has resided in Philadelphia before.

Back when it was still called the National Challenge Cup, the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals won the tournament four times in the 1960s. Uhrik Truckers (Philadelphia German-American) won the city's first championship in 1936.

"This is a massive opportunity," Union defender Ray Gaddis said. "We all know the importance of this. We've worked so hard to get here.

"It is a great honor, because it is not easy to get the chance to play for a championship."

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood