DC United enters the Open Cup proper with a date against one of their lower division rivals, having met them many times in friendlies and now for the fourth time in the US Open Cup. Twice previously, DC dispatched the Kickers and moved on relatively easily, but those pesky Kickers shocked Peter Nowak and the eventual MLS Cup winning side when they bounced United from the Open Cup in 2004. So, The Kickers do have some history to build on and as always this match will be one of their biggest of the year, while DC will be managing minutes and most likely playing quite a few reserves.
However for the first time ever, DC United will be playing the match in Northern Virginia, as the match will take place at George Mason University Field just off the beltway in Fairfax, and should United manage to get by the Kickers, they will return to George Mason next Wednesday, for their incredible 14th straight home match in this competition, to face the winner of the Red Bull- Harrisburg City-Islanders match taking place tonite.
However, getting by Richmond will not be a walk in the park. For Richmond, this is one of their biggest matches of the year, and they have plenty of players with MLS experience and success against United. Kicker captain and former United draft pick, Mike Burke has actually played on two of the three lower division teams to beat United in the Open Cup. He began his career with Charleston and scored the opening goal when the Battery upset DC in 1999, then he was coming off injury and played sparingly when the Kickers shocked DC United 2-1 in 2004 to knock the team that went on to win the MLS Cup out of the Open Cup.
Richmond’s roster also includes longtime keeper Ronnie Pascale who was in goal for that historic win over DC in 2004, and forward Matthew Delicate, who came on as a sub in that match as well as played against DC for Rochester when the two teams met in 2008 when United went on to win the Open Cup that year for their last major trophy. Delicate also scored the winner in the Kickers 3-1 win over Real Maryland that got them into this match with DC.
Richmond also has MLS vets, Edson Elcock (KC), who also played on the Puerto Rico Islanders when they made their incredible semifinal run in the 2008 CONCACAF Champions League where they beat Marathon, merely the team that had dominated United’s group in the group stage, and Luke Vercollone who had a cup of coffee with NE, as well as highly regarded Virginia Cavalier midfielder Jonathan Villanueva, who was surprisingly undrafted by MLS.
DC On the other hand is coming off a demoralizing, bitter loss in Columbus that has almost certainly soured their confidence by ending a remarkable run of six matches unbeaten in all competitions. Plus, with another MLS road match looming in SJ (and indeed another Open Cup match next week if they win this one, plus another road match to shiny new Red Bull Arena the following weekend) as well as an injury list that continues to depress, United will almost certainly field a mixture of reserves and starters which is always difficult when facing lower level competition who will come in raring to go with all guns blazing.
Then again, with DC’s MLS season all but over and the apparent unshakable home field advantage that United seems to have secured for the rest of time, the Open Cup almost certainly is DC’s best chance at hardware this season, so maybe they punt the MLS matches and focus on the Cup who knows? Especially considering United’s recent success in being finalists the past two years and winning the Cup itself in RFK in 2008. So, Onalfo has to be sorely tempted to pull out all the stops in this match and hope for the best going forward hoping that the recent world cup rest has been enough and the future will bring some hobbled players back into the fold.
So, with that in mind, let’s see what Onalfo has to work with. In the attack, Cristman got a surprising start in Columbus, so Allsopp, Emilio, Moreno, and Khumalo are almost completely fresh. In midfield, the youthful King and ironman Simms are fine, but if necessary Morsink can easily play some minutes too. So, really Pontius and Quaranta are the only question marks in the attack. Smart money says Onalfo splits their time in this match, each playing about a half depending on the situation so they can also be pretty fresh for the trip to SJ.
The defensive corps is much more troublesome however. With Namoff and Wallace out long term, and Carey Talley still a question mark with a concussion, the huge question mark is how much Julius James can play in the next few weeks. Now, he was suspended for tomorrow’s match anyway for that ridiculous red card at the death of the OT win over RSL, but the way he came out of that match in Columbus did not look good, so if he’s out for weeks, then Onalfo does have some serious concerns as Pena can barely play 90 minutes much less multiple games a week. So, even with the welcome return of Burch and Graye bouncing back quickly from his bum leg, juggling the defense will be tough the next few weeks.
Looking realistically, Jakovic and McTavish can probably play the better part of four games in two weeks and hopefully someone is back soon to spell them so that four matches in two weeks won’t be necessary. Barry Rice and Graye will also have to play some yeoman minutes the next week or so too. Which leaves Burch, who recently returned after months off to split time with the Mummy for the rest of the minutes. Since Open Cup matches can go 120 minutes, but you do get an extra sub, it seems wise to plan start McTavish, Pena, Jakovic, and Graye and then assume you’ll burn one sub on Pena.
That defense, backed up by Hamid, should be able to stifle Delicate, Burke and Co. well enough as long as DC comes out decently motivated which they should given their precarious state right now. Then Allsopp, the crafty Emilio or the all time Open Cup leading scorer, Jamie Moreno with 12 goals and counting, should be able to find the back of the net if Onalfo is smart with his midfield management. Since Castillo, Khumalo, and/or Morsink almost certainly have to play some time to spell Pontius, Quaranta and maybe King, just make sure the wildly ineffective Castillo and the speedy, but unlucky Khumalo are not on the field together for very long. Sounds easy doesn’t it?
Obviously, the trends favor DC United. United has never lost a home match in the Open Cup to lower level competition, going 8-0 over the years and outscoring the lower divisions 24-3, having never even been behind in any game played here. However, two of those three goals against have come recently as Charleston scored one in the final in 2008 and Rochester scored one the last time DC faced a USL team, in the semifinals last year, where Rochester snuck one in at the end of the game. (Thiago Martins snagged the only other goal scored against DC when playing for Pittsburg in 2003).
Also, up until the Columbus loss, DC has been on quite a roll seemingly almost resurrecting their season with five wins and a tie in their last six matches (2-0-1 in MLS, beat RSL in Open Cup qualifier, and Milan and El Salvador in friendlies), and that Crewl loss was galling due to the hand ball goal scored by the Boca Bamboozler, Swindling Schelotto. However, the Kickers are also cruising along in second place in USL2 right now trailing only the Charleston Battery and riding a four match unbeaten streak themselves since a loss in Charleston almost a month ago.
Plus, the Kickers being a perennial USL powerhouse and defending USL2 Champions, have plenty of confidence coming as they are also the last USL team to win the Open Cup prior to the creation of MLS when they won it in 1995. Besides DC United in 2004, Richmond also has some other MLS scalps from the Open Cup having knocked out Colorado in 2000 and The LA Galaxy in 2007. They also have the series edge against DC United overall if you count all the times the teams have met over the years. In nine matches, Richmond is 4-3-1 including winning the last two friendlies 3-0 and 3-2 the last time the two times teams met in 2008 and 2007 respectively, so there’s no chance they will come in scared of the worst team in MLS right now.
DC has the horses to win this one if they put together the effort they’ve been showing the past few matches, but that’s easier said than done when playing veteran lower level competition. Seems likely the first goal will be the difference in this match.