DC faces an old friend in US Open Cup

DC United takes on the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in fourth round of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and while the two sides have only faced each other once before, there has been plenty of familiarity over the years.

DC United, along with the rest of qualifying MLS teams, enters the fourth round of the US Open Cup in Pittsburgh to take on the Riverhounds at their new home, Highmark Stadium situated along the Monongahela River. United defeated the Riverhounds 2-1 in their only meeting on the field way back in the fourth round of the 2003 US Open Cup, but DC’s roots with the Riverhounds go much deeper than that. DC’s current general Manager, Dave Kasper was Pittsburgh’s inaugural GM when the team was founded back in 1998 and joined United at the end of 2001. Throughout the years since, there has been plenty of player transactions back and forth between the clubs.

Pittsburgh has had a rocky run recently and had declared bankruptcy last November, but quickly got its finances back in order and has been a solid team, steadily getting better so far this season. Despite a very unheralded roster almost completely turned over since last year, they have made their way to this round of the Cup without having given up a goal in the tournament and with a surprising 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rowdies whose roster boasts plenty of former MLS talent including former DC forward Maicon Santos and coached by former DC coach Thomas Rongen as well. Other MLS ties on Tampa include Marcelo Saragosa, Matt Pickens and guys like Ben Sweat (14th overall pick by Crew) and Martin Nunez, a crafty Uruguyan twice offered MLS contracts only to turn them down, so beating that team clearly shows the Riverhounds can play.

DC on the other hand is a bit of a wild card considering their history and current situation. They won the Open Cup in 2013, but were summarily drummed from the Cup in their first round match last year in Rochester. Granted it was a game marred by a biblical storm producing two weather delays of over 2 hours in total, but DC coach Ben Olsen followed his tradition of clearing the bench to make his starting XI in that match, as well as an inopportune red card, didn’t help matters either. Chances are that is what he’ll do tomorrow night in Pittsburgh as well, minus the red card hopefully. With a lot of banged up players on the roster and having recently been through quite a rough stretch of games, I don’t see Olsen burning too many starters in this match, although some will certainly be available.

The only regular starters I think likely to start the match are central defenders Bobby Boswell (because Steve Birnbaum is suspended from the red card in last year’s Open Cup loss), Kofi Opare and maybe Taylor Kemp as left back, although it’s possible a guy like Luis Silva or Markus Halsti or even a guy coming back from injury like Chris Pontius gets a start to get some game fitness, but I doubt it. More likely those guys come off the bench if they make the trip at all. I suspect Olsen starts all the players from the bottom of the bench in the remaining seven to eight field positions. I’m thinking along the lines of Conor Doyle and Facundo Coria as forwards, Luke Mishu, Collin Martin, Jared Jeffrey, and Miguel Aguilar across midfield from left to right, then Kemp, Opare, Boswell and Jalen Robinson left to right across the backline in front of Andrew Dykstra or possibly Travis Worra in the nets. Maybe a guy like Silva, Pontius, or Michael Farfan gets in there if healthy, but I suspect Olsen would rather see what his young guns can do against third tier opposition. Could be a Michael Seaton sighting too if he is in country and still in between loan deals.

The Riverhounds used a roster mostly full of players unknown to me to oust the Rowdies, but one name stood out. Midfielder Danny Earls is the current Riverhounds captain and the Irish midfielder has played against DC before in the Open Cup for Rochester as well as 18 appearances for Colorado when they won an MLS Cup in 2010. English midfielder Rob Vincent is clearly a danger man as well with goals in both Open Cup matches for Pittsburgh including the lone goal in the Rowdies win. He also has a total of 11 goals in 14 appearances so far this year. Looks like they play a sort of 4-3-3 with Vincent and Scotsman Kevin Kerr the wide players around center forward Miro Cabrilo, with Earls and Ghanaian Stephen Opai pinched in behind them. Also looks like they win mostly with strong midfield play and a recently tightened up defense. Almost all their wins this year being by one goal and barely averaging over 1.5 goals per match.

As for current form, that couldn’t be worse for DC as they are coming off their second loss in a row and fourth loss in their last seven games, while Pittsburgh has a seven game unbeaten streak as well as won 8 of 10 at home this year. They did lose their last match due to an untimely red card (Earls of course) but were on a six game unbeaten streak in all competitions before that. On the bright side, DC is 31-11-4 (2-2 in PKs after official draws) in the Open Cup overall and 8-2-1 (PK win over Hershey after a draw) overall against the third division (USL) although those two losses came on the road. DC is 19-4-2 overall against lower divisions in the Open Cup, but only 5-4-0 on the road in their first Open Cup match. Pittsburgh has a 1-3 record against MLS teams in the Open Cup, but have never lost by more than 1 and they beat Colorado 2-0 back in 2001 to make the quarterfinals which is the farthest they ever gone in this tournament. Since that win they have lost to the Fire twice, 3-2 in 2002 and 2-1 last year, sandwiched around that DC 2-1 win in 2003. Pittsburgh is also 9-10-3 overall in the tournament.

DC tends to be an all or nothing team in the Open Cup, if they get past their opener, they usually advance pretty far having made the finals five times (3 championships) and the semi-finals three more times for eight final fours in 19 years; however they have been tossed in the first round four times and did not play in the tournament three more times. So, they have made the final four or busted out early 12 of 16 Open Cups they have played in. Tomorrow night’s match could easily make or break DC’s Open Cup run this year and it being the last major trophy the team has won makes this tournament special.

The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is the oldest continuously running cup competition in the United States and among the oldest in the world. It was established in 1914 and remains a single elimination tournament open to all levels of amateur and professional soccer. The winning team gets its name engraved on the Dewar Challenge Trophy which has been permanently retired and is on display at the US Soccer House in Chicago. MLS teams enter the draw in the fourth round.

Note: Ben Olsen is the only player in the modern era, beginning in 1995, to win the Open Cup as a player and a coach. Some of the player movement between the clubs over the years: DC signed Brazilian forward Thiago Martins, the reigning A league MVP after he scored the lone goal for Pittsburgh in that 2003 match with DC. Former DC players, Greg Janicki and Boyzz Khumalo were lured away from Pittsburgh in 2008 as well. And players have gone the other way as Abdul Thompson Conteh scored 14 goals for DC back in 2001, but was released in 2002 to sign with Pittsburgh. Former DC forward Joseph Ngwenya made his way to the Riverhounds via the Richmond Kickers after being released by DC as well.

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