For the third year in a row DC United has to win its way into the US Open Cup proper, but fortunately the Black and Red will be playing The Philadelphia Union at the Soccerplex in Boyd’s, Md. Only DC’s 16th straight home match in the oldest Cup tournament in the country.
Just about the only bright spot of United’s dismal past few years has been their amazing success, relative to their actual level of play in MLS, in this delightful little tournament. Since 2007, United’s Cup record is a 13-2, garnering the Dewar trophy given to the winner of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup in 2008, and unfortunately losing in the final in 2009 and in the semi-finals last year, to Seattle and the Crew respectively.
One common thread though has been the incredible run of luck and determination that has allowed United to play all those matches on a home field, and that continues with this initial play-in match against the Union. Ironically, the last time United played an away match in this tournament, Nowak was the coach for DC as the team was bounced by Chicago in 2006. Nowak is also the only DC coach ever to lose a match at the Soccerplex, in 2005 to Dallas. However, Nowak now has that dratted anchovy Ruiz, who broke United’s hearts in overtime on that occasion in his team this time around.
But, enough history for the moment as United has to regroup from a couple hideous losses on the road the past two weekends, and it will be very interesting to see how seriously Ben Olsen will take this tournament, as well as how deep United really is given the likely players unavailable.
Traditionally, most MLS teams play mostly reserves in these type of matches, and it seems likely both Nowak and Olsen will stick to that policy. Indeed, given Nowak’s past history in this tournament with DC (Philly wasn’t invited last year due to being an expansion team with no history to base its qualifications), it will be interesting to see if Nowak takes this tournament seriously at all. For DC, Nowak lost in the first round in Richmond in 2004, lost in the quarters to Dallas in ’05, and lost to the Fire in the semis in ’06, arguably in none of those games did he play anywhere near any of his best players. He and Thomas Rongen are the only three time losers in this tournament in United’s history BTW, no other DC coach has three Open Cup losses on his resume.
Anyway, Olsen will certainly play some younger players, but who the veterans are that he sprinkles in will be very telling. Obviously, Kitchen will not play still being away with the U-20s, nor does it seem likely Charlie Davies (groin), Clyde Simms (calf), or Jed Zayner (hamstring) will play, although all of them seem to be pretty close to returning to action. Still, tough to see rushing them back for this match. Also, Chris Pontius and Marc Burch have played the lion’s share of the minutes lately, and would seem unlikely to start either given the league match with LA looming Saturday.
On the flip side, some young players who have probably earned some minutes start with goalie Bill Hamid, who recently signed a senior long term deal with the team. Also, Chris Korb and Ethan White seem likely to get some time. Korb has played very well in place of Zayner in league matches, while White has played well in the reserves so far. Then again, the abysmal play of Rodrigo Bresesco and Daniel Wollard has probably played their way back onto the scrubs bench, which means into this match, perhaps as punishment.
So, looking into my crystal ball, my money is on Hamid in goal, then Korb, White, Brasesco and Woolard (to be fair, back in his more natural left back position) across the defensive line, all of whom looking to earn their way into, or back into the conversation for the first team.
In midfield, Boskovic needs to build on his first half performance in Colorado, and put the second half behind him as well. Almost certainly Kurt Morsink will play for Simms, but I suspect McCarty gets the night off and Stephen King gets the chance to show what he can do in the middle. Maybe it’s Boskovic in there, but I think his future is as a left sided player, or he has no future at all, so he will play the left. On the right, Andy Najar, who just decided to play play for Honduras internationally, was held out for most of the Colorado match and has looked a bit out of sorts lately, so I think he gets the start there. Maybe Santino Quaranta gets rewarded for his goal and generally good play in Colorado, but I think Olsen would rather see if he can get Najar on track in a tournament where he excelled last year scoring a stunning game winning goal in OT to knock out RSL among other things.
The forward line will be interesting. Wolff and Ngwenya were held out of Colorado too for the most part, and Brettschneider did have a pretty good outing all things considered for his first MLS minutes. But, I think Santino gets a chance to see if he can keep his confidence growing with some time at forward and he will get the start with either Wolff or Ngwenya, to see what that partnership might bring to the table. Most likely Ngwenya as Wolff will be saved for LA for sure.
As for Nowak, who knows what he will do. I suspect he plays mostly reserves as I do not believe he takes this tournament as seriously as DC clearly has in lately, and he also expects all his players, especially reserves, to rise to the occasion when they get the call. So, I think DC’s ratio of veterans will be slightly higher, but we’ll see.
As for the history, well that is clearly on United’s side. DC has never lost a play-in match (4-0), is 9-1 in Open Cup games played at the Soccerplex, is 23-3 at home in this tournament in its history, and has made at least the quarterfinals 10 of the 13 times they have been entered into the Open Cup. However, when they are knocked out early, it is usually in their very first game where they get spanked ugly, Charleston in 1999, Richmond in 2004, and Harrisburg in 2007. All first match clangers, but all away matches too.
There you have it. All signs point to DC getting the job done against the Union tomorrow night. Should DC win, United will, of course, host their 17th straight Open Cup match against New England in the next round of qualifiers, likely April 26-27 or May 10-11. Should United advance past New England, they will not host the match, however, as the Houston KC winner is slated to host that final play-in match to enter the tournament proper starting in June.
Note: Some may argue, but I say if you’re playing in the Open Cup itself even in these early qualifiers. True, it is an MLS decision to open up the last two automatic qualifying spots to the winners of this little MLS mini tournament, but in my opinion if the match is played solely to determine the ability to play in the Open Cup, then you in fact are playing in the Open Cup itself. Everybody has to qualify in some form, so to say there are only 40 teams in the entire country “playing” in the “Open” Cup is ridiculous for me. My .02. There you go.