No question about it. DC has had about the easiest schedule in US Open Cup history the past two years in hosting every single match including the finals, but with seemingly the easiest road to a potential second straight Dewar Trophy and third title overall, United faces possibly the trickiest opponent left in the tournament in the USL1 Rochester Raging Rhinos.
Now on paper DC United is the clear favorite as defending Open Cup champions, as well as one of the most successful teams in MLS history, facing a USL1 team they have beaten three times in this tournament without even conceding a single goal, including beating them 3-0 in the Open Cup final in 1996, as well as handily dispatching them last year in Germantown 2-0.
However, taking the Rhinos lightly would be a huge mistake. They are the only USL team to have won an Open Cup in the MLS era, beating the Fire, Burn, Crew and Rapids in succession to take the title in 1999. A season in which their current coach Darren Tilley played a huge role as leading scorer, and coach Tommy Soehn should remember it as he played the full 90 for Chicago in their third round loss to the Rhinos. (In fact, quite a few current coaches in addition to Soehn will remember the Rhinos winning the Dewar trophy that year as Piotr Nowak also played for that Fire team, Jason Kreis for the Burn, Robert Warzycha for the Crew, and Dominic Kinnear for the Mutiny, who lost to Colorado in the quarters that year)
Now currently the Rhinos are fifth in USL1, but that perhaps is a bit deceptive. They’ve played most of the early part of the season on the road and took some time to find their form especially defensively, but have recently tied all of the top teams in the division at home the past two weeks including a 1-1 tie against Charleston Saturday night.
One thing that is not deceptive is their stellar road scoring ability, as well as maybe their mediocre defense overall. There’s no question Rochester can score on the road as they lead their entire USL1 with 14 goals scored away from home, but then again they have played more away games then anyone else too. Possibly a more pertinent stat is their averaging slightly more than a goal a game away from home, 12 given up in 11 games, and having by far the worst defense of the top six teams in USL1 having given up 27 goals in 17 games overall.
However, all that aside, this is Rochester’s biggest match of the year, no question. They will be primed and ready to do anything to win this match, it’s so big for them. DC, not so much. They will want to win of course, but they also have MLS and CONCACAF concerns looming, plus United’s obvious talent advantage simply has to help create even the slightest bit of underestimation that could lead to trouble, no matter how much they claim they will be wary of such feelings.
Players DC should definitely be concerned about are their leading scorer Johnny Menyongar, who also is the highest scoring player in US Open Cup history with 12 goals all time, just one ahead of United’s own Jaime Moreno, btw. Also, Tai Atieno is a beast of a forward, and Danny Earls and Andrew Gregor are wicked good wide players along with Tiger Fitzgerald in the center of midfield. Earls, especially on that left side, and Gregor cutting inside from the right can be devastating talents.
Defensively, right back John Ball played against DC last year, and Maryland defender Kenny Bertz will be familiar, as will goalkeeper Scott Vallow, who may play instead of Tim Melia, who has been starting lately. Certainly Vallow will be ready for any more Burch freekicks, unlike last year when a couple Burch bombs stunned him and the Rhinos as DC beat them 2-0 in Germantown in the third round of this tournament.
However, in some ways that’s what’s wrong with this match, and I totally fear a Karmic backlash. Not only is this the seventh straight home match for DC in this tournament (ninth if you count the MLS play-in matches), but this current home stretch started with that win over the Rhinos last year. So sure, DC has beaten the Rhinos like a drum in the past outscoring them 8-0 in three matches, but all of them have been home matches, as was every match in the tournament last year and every match this year. It puts a bit of an asterisk on those matches, as well as I fear the soccer gods temptations to meddle in United’s long home winning streak against lower division teams.
Bottom line, I think DC has to play their absolute best lineup available considering they will still be missing some important starters already. Quaranta is still away with the US Nats in the Gold Cup, and even though Canada recently bowed out, Jakovic will not be available either. Plus, Simms is away in Germany getting his possible sports hernia looked at.
Obviously, Pontius fills in for Quaranta very well and he was the spark that helped United past the NJ Barons in the third round, plus Earls has got to be shut down on that side of the field and as good as Khumalo has played defense out wide lately, that’s not his forte. Also, Janicki has filled in admirably for Jakovic the past month and considering he survived the brute Casey and the speedy Cummings, he should be just fine against Atieno and Menyongar.
However, replacing Simms is a serious concern. DiRaimondo played in that defensive role in the Harrisburg match and Szetela was just signed, but I’d be shocked if either started this particular match. Far more likely in my mind is either Wallace, who has looked pretty nice playing centrally or McTavish who has filled that role in the past and assisted on the first goal against Harrisburg.
Yet, if you are going to play either of them, then I think to be safe, you have to play Olsen and Gomez to be sure the central midfield is in good shape against a very decent midfield group that Rochester has available. Plus, Gomez is really beginning to heat up and Soehn has to want that to continue, and neither he nor Olsen has played a ton of minutes lately. Same goes for Fred who is recently back from injury and who set up the winning goal over Harrisburg as well as the third goal over Colorado this past weekend.
At forward, Emilio should continue to start for as long as he wants to. He too, is just starting to heat up and he is devastating if he goes on a roll like he has the past two summers. At the other slot, it’s tempting to go with Moreno to start, but it will probably be N’Silu or Khumalo (or Pontius if Boyzzz plays midfield) as Open Cup matches play 30 minutes extra time if tied, and it’s better to bring Moreno off the bench instead of hoping he can play 120 minutes.
The defense should be set. Burch, Janicki and Namoff are almost guaranteed. Maybe McTavish slots in for Namoff and Jacobson, who scored the winner against Harrisburg takes the midfield slot from McT, or John gets a run out for Burch, but I think Namoff starts this one and Burch gets another chance to launch some bombs at a team he had success against last year.
In goal will be interesting though. Kocic has played the Open Cup to date and I personally think that should continue, but Wicks is the better keeper and maybe gets the nod. We’ll see. Tough to lose out on a goalkeeper mistake at this stage of the tournament, especially when it could have been avoided, but then again Warf has his own communication problems, too.
Of course, all the intangibles go DC’s way as well. United is 15-3 overall versus lower division teams in the Open Cup, all three losses coming on the road. DC is 7-0 versus lower divisions at home having outscored those lower level teams 22-2. Only Pittsburgh ’02 (Thiago Martins!), and Charleston last year in the final have even scored on DC at home.
So, there you go. DC has the players, the history and the motivation to win and get the final in their house against either Houston or Seattle, but Open Cup matches are never decided on paper. United has to take the match to Rochester and match their intensity to keep the soccer gods from being able to meddle. If not, this could be the banana peel that slides them right out of being able to defend their title.