Possibly the most humiliating loss in DC United history is their Open Cup loss to Harrisburg two years ago. The Islanders are certainly the lowest level team DC has ever lost a tournament match too at any rate. But the situation and likely the results are far different this time around.
That pitiful day, DC played nearly a complete reserve side aside from Marc Burch and Clyde Simms, who coincidentally are the only two survivors still on United’s roster of the DC players that took the field in that fateful match. But, this time around, while DC will be missing some regulars either injured or on National team duty, they will almost certainly be playing pretty close to their best XI.
Almost as important as that is that the match will be at home in Germantown instead of on a tricky field in a high school stadium in the middle some godforsaken Pennsylvania plain with more cows than cars. Lord knows I love to travel to rinky dink stadiums as part of the charm of this entire tournament, but there is no question DC benefits from not having to make that trek to play on some sketchy field somewhere.
Also, Harrisburg is a much different team this time around. They lead the USL2 at 8-3-2 with the best offense in the league while still retaining the third best defense. Back in 2007, they relied on merciless defensive pressure and a CK goal just before halftime to blast DC out of the Cup, but this time around they may not come down here like the Barons did and stack bodies in front of goal and hope for a break.
Considering the Islanders still have quite a few players that played in that earlier match including nearly all of that stifling defense, they almost certainly will not come into the game scared at all. They return Steve Fischer who scored the winner against DC as well as Schofield who took that corner kick, and Mo Odour who scored against NE in their third round win over the Revs that put them in this match.
But they have also some new dynamic offensive talent including forward Chad Severs, who leads the team with 7 goals, midfielder Ty Shipalane with 6 goals and 5 assists, and midfielder Jason Pelletier with 3 and 4 respectively (tied with Fischer for third in scoring). So, they may well be pretty confident that they can get a result playing a more aggressive style and not simply relying on a suffocating defense.
Which makes it a pretty good thing DC is playing this one at home, not only because DC is 7-0 against lower divisions at home, but also because Harrisburg is a lot less fearsome away from their home, where they are 6-0 scoring an incredible 19 goals while only giving up 2. On the road, however, they are a much more pedestrian 2-3-2 giving up 14 goals and only scoring 9. They did just win in Maryland recently dismantling Crystal Palace Baltimore 3-1 last Friday, however.
But clearly the biggest reason DC should expect to avenge that blot on their Open Cup record is that they are going to play upwards of seven starters or regulars in this match. There’s no reserve league this time around, and rosters are a lot smaller, so when injuries and callups hit (as well as roster management decisions needing to be made by the guaranteed contract deadline of July 1st), that pretty much only leaves regulars to pick up the slack.
In fact, I’d be surprised if Soehn did much more than tweak the lineup that tied Columbus over the weekend. For one thing, DC doesn’t play another meaningful match until the 18th, so players can rest after this job is done. Plus, Soehn really needs to get some players playing more consistently together to develop better chemistry overall. Also, United really shouldn’t take this game lightly as they have a relatively easy road to the final. There’s no MLS teams between them and the final and incredibly United will get to host the semi-final round too should they win.
As pretty much the only two healthy and effective forwards, surely N’Silu and Pontius will start up top. Maybe Khumalo gets another chance instead of N’Silu, but the doctor might play in midfield instead like he did against the Crew. Then I think Soehn plays Gomez, who is just starting to heat up, Olsen and Simms from the start of this one as well to help get that chemistry back with the return of Gomez and Olsen (and Fred) to health recently.
On the outsides will be interesting, though. Khumalo and Wallace started in Columbus, but with Fred back and Wallace struggling, as well as the lovely play of Barklage to date in this tournament, I think both Wallace and Khumalo come in off the bench if at all. Fred playing on the right and Barklage on the left. Fred needs minutes to get back to full fitness and Barklage has been a revelation playing almost every midfield position in this tournament and deserves to keep his run going. I also suspect Kocic starts too for the same reason.
The rest of the defense is even easier to predict. Namoff, Janicki, and Burch are virtually certain to play to continue developing their chemistry since Jakovic will be away for quite a while longer with Canada. Maybe John gets a run for Burch, or even less likely, McTavish for Namoff, but I don’t think so as McTavish is not playing well at all right now and Burch is such a weapon in these lower level games for his thunderous free kicks that no lower division keeper has ever seen before much less prepared to try and block them. Plus, John is too violent. The last thing DC needs to do is give up too many set pieces if they don’t have to.
Bottom line, DC can and should win this match going away. It’s always tough to play lower division sides and they struggled against the Barons for sure, but they also never really were in danger of losing that match either. But the fact remains, if DC plays anywhere near their abilities, there’s no question the Islanders will lose, and it will be Harrisburg making the long trip home having been knocked out of the Cup this time around barring any detrimental interventions by the soccer gods.
Should United win, they will face either the Wilmington Hammerheads or the Rochester Raging Rhinos, who face off tomorrow night as well, and United will host that match at the Soccerplex for their unbelievable seventh straight home match in this tournament (ninth straight counting MLS play-in matches!). Ironically, the last time DC went on the road in this tournament was their loss to the Islanders two years ago. It’s possible too, if United makes the final, that it could be a re-match of last year’s final as Charleston is still alive in the other bracket.