Taking a look at DC United's schedule heading into the last two months of their season and you just may want to recoil in horror. Not only are United in the middle of trying to secure a playoff spot in MLS, but they are also jumping headfirst into the inaugural CONCACAF Champions Leage.
Up first however is perhaps their most important competition to date this season. The US Open Cup final this Wednesday at RFK Stadium against USL-1 Charleston Battery. Now in years past the Open Cup was a competition that wasn't taken too seriously by MLS teams because there simply wasn't anything of value attatched to winning the final, outside of $100,000 to the winning team. However, now there is significance to winning the final. A spot in the Champions League competition for 2009 is up for grabs.
I don't know about you, but that is huge for DC United this season considering how their MLS campaign is unfolding. With a team full of injuries (both new and old) and many key players not having prominent roles this season, United's MLS season and international fortunes haven't been what many were expecting. An up and down MLS season coupled with another heartbreaking exit from the CONCACAF Champions Cup have gotten United in a bit of trouble. Don't even get me started on that waste of time known as the Superliga. All that did was derail United's unbeaten June and sent this team into a spiral of mediocrity that it is now just starting to climb out of.
All that just in time to meet a schedule that will see United playing seven matches in the next 25 days in September. Couple that with the eight matches in 28 days in October and you could be looking at yet another team dragging itself across the finish line like we've seen these past few seasons with United.
Injuries are the key concern right now for United heading into Wednesday's all important final. Luciano Emilio pulled himself out of this past weekends match with Red Bull in the first half with a groin sprain. Accoriding to team officials, it isn't considered serious and his status for the match is unknown at this time. Fred is still battling his gummy hamstring and of course United is still without Gonzalo Peralta's services. There is good news however as Marcelo Gallardo made his first appearance for United in over two months on Saturday and looked quite effective in his 20 minutes of action. Ben Olsen was also listed on the available subs for the second match in a row. Olsen will never be fully healed at any point this season but his appearance on the bench can only be a boost for a battered team this season.
Winning the Open Cup has to be this teams top priority at the moment. Not only because it's the next game on the schedule, but because of what it can mean for this team for the rest of the season. If United can win the Cup, a lot of pressure can be taken off this team in terms of what their international future will hold for next season. Now of course I'm not in any way saying that United can take their foot off the gas pedal if they were fortunate enough to walk away with more hardware on Wednesday night. I'm merely suggesting that it's probably easier to approach their nightmare of matches the next two months knowing they have their spot claimed for next season.
It's no secret that what we've seen over the past few seasons is a United squad with tired players. Jaime Moreno has given more than expected this season as well as players like Devon MacTavish, Gonzalo Martinez, Bryan Namoff and Clyde Simms. But what this team needs is an opportunity to bring hardware home to reignite the flame for the final push to the season. The players I mentioned above are critical to this teams success, but they also need some rest. Having players like Gallardo, Olsen, Peralta and Fred inserted into the lineup in future games will give head coach Tom Soehn the opportunity to rest some of those players that have given everything these past few months.
Now looking past Wednesday night, United are in for a tough two months. Not only are they fighting to climb the Eastern Conference standings (currently tied for fourth with Red Bull, but only three points back of Chicago for that guaranteed playoff spot in the East), they have to meet the challenge of a new competition (CCL) that takes on a different look and different feel from the now defunct CONCACAF Champions Cup.
Instead of simply playing knockout rounds to advance as in the past, United are in a group stage competition that has them playing six matches home and away against some pretty tough competition. As it most likely will work out, United will be grouped with Cruz Azul of Mexico, Saprissa of Costa Rica and Marathon of Honduras. That seems to be the Group of Death in this inaugural go round. The competition starts on Tuesday September 16th at RFK Stadium against Saprissa and will end four days after United's last MLS regular season match against Columbus.
What that means of course is that United could have a competition saving match just three days prior to their opening MLS playoff match, should United make it to the playoffs. It's going to be tough for United to balance winning MLS matches with the intesity of international matches blended into their schedule. Quite often United is considered the standard bearer for international success in MLS and this again is another opportunity for United to do so.
United simply needs to win the Open Cup final or it could be a very long and very dissapointing next two months. Let's hope United can get this very long and very arduous task off to a fantastic start and bring home another Cup to put into their beautiful trophy cabinet on the fourth floor of the RFK offices.