Incredibly, United will be hosting their 12th straight Open Cup match or qualifier at RFK when RSL takes the field tomorrow night. DC won the Cup here in 2008 and was a finalist last year losing to Seattle. RSL, on the other hand, despite their MLS success will be looking for their first trip back into the tournament since 2006, and first ever win in RFK under any circumstances.
Certainly the historical trends do not favor RSL in any way as United is a ridiculous 16-2-1 lifetime at home in the Open Cup, including 9-1 the past two years. DC has only lost to Seattle and Miami and was knocked out on PKs by Dallas in 2005 (officially a tie), while RSL is a mere 3-5-1 overall having never won a road match in the Open Cup, although they did knock out SJ on PKs a month ago to advance to this match. Add to that RSL having never won any match in RFK with DC outscoring them 12-4, and the defending champs do seem to have their work cut out for them.
Unfortunately, the more recent trends favor overwhelmingly favor Salt Lake as they are riding a five game winning streak in MLS and have recently shown a marked improvement of their previously hideous road form with two quality wins in SJ and at Chivas, as well three narrow one goal road losses to current MLS powerhouses, LA, Crew, and Houston in a match RSL should have won.
RFK, on the other hand, is far from the usual fortress for United these days, even being 2-1 in their last three home matches, including the last second win over Chivas three days ago. That only brought DC’s home record to a mere 2-4 having been outscored a painful 10 to 5. Obviously, United’s permanence at the bottom of the table, and RSL’s hovering near the top of the West lately isn’t too promising for DC’s hopes either.
Still, DC has gotten a welcome boost to their offense lately as their Aussie striker has become a serious threat, while some crucial offensive players have returned to health. Second year attacker, Chris Pontius and young offensive leader, Santino Quaranta, as well as Academy sensation, Andy Najar have sparked United’s two wins and six goals scored in the past week (including the AC Milan match). Those four have combined for three goals and four assists on those six glorious goals which have renewed all of Washington DC with the hope that order is being restored to the universe.
It’ll be interesting to see how Onalfo handles these two matches as both are crucial for United’s hopes this season and DC is in the fourth match of a tough stretch of 6 matches in 19 days. Clearly, the Open Cup seems to be United’s best and probably only shot at a trophy this year, but not going all out in the league match on the weekend sends a bad message as well. On the good side, United’s players having been hurt or not playing recently has kept them relatively fresh, but then again the lack of options in the defense poses some problems.
Given that RSL will almost certainly want to reward their bench players who ousted SJ to get to this point in the tournament, and that they have much bigger fish to fry later this season in CONCACAF and an almost certain return to the playoffs to defend their MLS crown, it’s very likely RSL plays no more than four starters. My money is on Espindola, Johnson, Borchers, and maybe Olave or Wingert, are the only full time starters to play much, meaning guys like Saborio, Morales, Williams, Russell, Rimando, and the injured Beckerman all get rested or come off the bench at best.
If that’s the case, Onaflo should feel pretty confident in resting guys like Pena, Simms, Allsopp, and maybe Graye or Wallace, plus having some sort of rotation for Quaranta, Pontius, and Najar. All of which would allow James some much needed minutes, try Morsink and King in central midfield, get Cristman and/or Emilio a start, and get McTavish on the field in the defense too. I think it’s a lock Perkins gets the start too.
So, looking at those matchups, DC has some decent advantages. Cristman and Emilio might get some joy against Borchers and McKenzie (and Onalfo should know Mckenzie’s weaknesses having coached him last year!). Najar and Santino splitting time, supported by Graye or McT at right back might easily get the better of the inconsistent Johnson and Wingert, while Castillo and Pontius splitting time on the left, supported by Wallace (or Graye) have a good shot at outplaying Grabavoy and the inconsistent Beltran. Then King and Morsink (or iron man Simms) should not b troubled by Warner and Alexandre too much.
Defensively, it’s a bit more dicey as I can’t imagine Pena playing in this match at all. Which leaves James and the last minute PK hero Talley holding down the fort in the middle against Flip Espindola and very likely Pablo Campos. Those two battering rams have a decent turn of speed too, so while they are not Findley, they might be a lot of trouble for turtle Talley and the sometimes Calamity James. However, as mentioned above, if United’s midfield carries the day, that could short circuit a lot of problems before they even get to DC’s thin defense.
An even more daring plan, which if Onalfo’s starting lineup against Chivas is any indicator of his thinking, would be to start all of his big guns that started against Milan and Chivas, playing that hybrid 4-5-1 and then pull them off as the match progresses since you get four subs in Open Cup play. However, that is a risky move as United might not get the early lead, and a tied match would go to a full 30 minutes of OT and PKs.
It would be a horribly expensive victory if key guys like Quaranata, Pontius, Simms, Talley, and Allsopp played the majority of 120 minutes with a key league match against the same team a few days later. Conversely, it would be a hideous waste of energy to start those guys and play them a lot, only to have to pull them and go on to lose anyway. Better to be safe than sorry is my thought, but we’ll see.
So, there you go. DC will be looking to use some depth, yet keep their proud history of Open Cup success going as well as continue their long slog back to respectability in MLS, while RSL might be thinking of greater things in the future like their visit to the White House to see President Obama among other things, and just might overlook United in a tournament where they’ve never had much success anyway. Tough to call DC a favorite, even at RFK, given the current situation, but DC does seem to have a way of pulling off result in this tournament, and another Cup run could be the one savinggrace for this painful season.