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United sails past Harrisburg and into US Open Cup semi-finals thanks to 2-0 win

Boyzz Kuhmalo

Boyzz Kuhmalo sends a cross that would curl into the back of the net for D.C. United's second goal against the Harrisburg Islanders. Photo: Tony Quinn.

In a season that has gone horribly wrong, at least D.C. United can count on one bright spot. Their performance to date in the U.S. Open Cup tournament. Tonight the Black-and-Red cruised to a comfortable 2-0 win over the visiting Harrisburg City Islanders behind goals from newcomer Branko Boskovic and Boyzzz Khumalo.

United got things started immediately when Devon McTavish curled a pass over City Islander defender Anthony Calvano and into the path of Santino Quaranta. Quaranta pushed past defender Jerritt Thayer and got to the end line when he sent a ball diagonally to the penalty spot where Boskovic calmly slotted past City Islander goalkeeper Danny Cepero for a 1-0 lead after just 41 seconds. United continued to pile the pressure on the visitors and almost doubled their lead in the 36th minute when Boskovic’ free kick sailed inches over the bar. Harrisburg’s only plausible attempt at goal was in the 26th minute when Kai Kasiguran volleyed a rocket just over the bar after United had trouble clearing a corner kick.

United came out after halftime just like they did in the first half and doubled their lead in the 47th minute. However, this goal was one for the record books as United goalkeeper Bill Hamid sent a long clearing kick over the Harrisburg defense and sent Boyzzz Khumalo free down the right wing. With plenty of time and two United players crashing the penalty area, the South African hit what was most definitely a well intentioned cross that somehow took a turn and ended up in the net. The look on Khumalo’s face after the goal (right) told the story as he seemed almost apologetic in scoring the goal. The real laughter however was coming from the stands where his injured and resting teammates Adam Cristman, Chris Pontius, Dejan Jakovic, Juan Manuel Pena, Rodney Wallace and Marc Burch couldn’t contain themselves.

After the second goal from United the match started to take a bit of a dark turn and in the 75th minute Harrisburg were down to 10 men when defender Tyler Ruthven was red carded for a vicious tackle from behind on Khumalo that temporarily set nerves on edge. Credit to both teams however for not taking it further and United enjoyed stroking the ball around to kill off the rest of the match. United did have an opportunity late on to make it 3-0 but McTavish’ left-footed blast off of a nice no-look pass from Jaime Moreno deflected off the crossbar in the 83rd minute.

United will now face the Columbus Crew on Wednesday, September 1st at RFK Stadium at 7:30 pm in the semi-final round of the US Open Cup. Columbus made the final by virtue of their easy 3-0 win over the Charleston Battery two weeks ago. United will face English Championship side Portsmouth this Saturday evening at RFK at 7:30 pm.

United Notes

  • United lost out on the lottery to select US Youth International Sal Zizzo to Chivas USA. Zizzo had been with Hannover 96 of the Bundesliga for three seasons but only made 9 first-team appearances in his stay
  • United will apparently bring in US born winger Jemal Johnson for a trial. Johnson had been playing in the lower English divisions for various teams the past few seasons
  • Adam Cristman was back from his hernia surgery in Germany and in the stands with his two-month old daughter
  • Chris Pontius does not have a broken foot as originally feared after injuring it in the first half against the Galaxy this past Sunday. He will be held out of this weekends match with Portsmouth in hopes of having him fit for their match at Real Salt Lake on July 31st
  • Dejan Jakovic sore hamstring has him out for this weekend and he also is hoping to be ruled fit by next weekend

DC United Hosts Harrisburg with Open Cup Semifinal Berth on the Line

After a miserable two loss home-stand has crushed their MLS playoff hopes for the third year in a row, DC United can turn their attention to the one tournament where they have had success these past few dismal seasons. As bad as DC has been since the end of 2007, United has found fortune in the oldest continuous cup competition in the US, being finalists the last two years and winning it all in 2008. A spot in the semifinals for the third year in a row and seventh time in 13 tries would be the reward if DC can overcome Harrisburg again this year.

DC met Harrisburg in the quarterfinals of this cup last year as well and won fairly easily as United bolted out to a two goal lead in the first 18 minutes and hung on for the 2-1 win. But the City Islanders have had some success against United as they beat DC 1-0 in Harrisburg the last time DC played a road match in this tournament in 2007, 15 games ago for those counting United’s incredible run of home matches in this tournament. And shocker, United will host the Crew in the semi-finals September 1st if they do beat Harrisburg tomorrow night.

United does have to be the overwhelming favorite to win too, as they have never even come close to losing to a lower division club at home, a perfect 8-0 record outscoring their lower division foes 24-4 in the process, but one of those four goals was scored by Harrisburg in a somewhat dicey second half as United hung on to win last year at the soccer plex. United also has a record of 16-3 versus the lower division over all in this tournament and the City Islanders have one of those wins. In fact, they wore some pretty confident T-shirts in warm-ups last year saying “Let’s Do It (Again!)”.

Obviously, that little dig at DC didn’t work out so well for them last year and Harrisburg is a bit different team this year, and not having a great season in their division either. Plus, considering DC should seriously be focusing on not having a slip up in this tournament which is their last real chance at success this year, it’s tough to imagine United doesn’t find their way into the semifinals at the end of the day.

Some players DC should watch out for are two young forwards, Sheanon Williams and Geoffrey Bloes, both former defenders, Williams for various US youth teams and he had a cup of coffee with RSL before landing in USL. Bloes was left back last year when DC faced them, but was a high scoring forward in college. Both are scoring at a decent clip for Harrisburg this year. Also familiar to DC are central midfielders, Jason Pelletier, and the best player on the field for Harrisburg last year against DC, J.T. Noone.

DC should by no means take Harrisburg lightly though as they deservedly beat a solid Red Bull 1-0 in OT to get this far in the Open Cup. Ghana midfielder Dominic Oppong scored the OT winner to beat Red Bull and get into this quarterfinal and midfielder Kai Kasugurian is another pretty handy midfielder too. In goal, former Red Bull keeper, Danny Cepero got his revenge on his former club too with seven saves in that match and he will no fear of United inherently, and especially as badly as DC offense is playing this year.

However, gone are Nicki Paterson and Ty Shipalane, who DC signed and then cast aside earlier this year. Those two set up and scored the City Islanders’ goal against DC last year. Their defense has also been reworked this year and given up 22 goals in 15 games so far this year, including 14 goals in 8 road matches to boot. But, they have scored 17 goals overall, with 9 of those coming on the road, so they might well expect a goal on the road in this match.

So, it seems like Harrisburg is likely to come in here and play a very defensive style to frustrate DC’s anemic defense and look to snatch a goal on a DC defense that has been known to give up a clanger or two. However, Richmond tried that with a sub-par team for them and was dispatched fairly easily by DC a few weeks ago at George Mason.

DC also has good reasons to start a lot of firepower in this match despite it being DC’s third match in six days. For one thing, their two new big signings need to continue to get integrated more and have been eased into playing time fairly well. Hernandez had a full 90 against LA, but only 30 minutes against Seattle, Boskovic has played barely 55 minutes total. Both should start or play at least play a ton in this match.

Onalfo, who will be coaching his first Open Cup proper match as his two game suspension from the Dallas play-in match ended against Richmond, does have some serious injury concerns though. Pontius and Jakovic both came up lame in the LA match. Pontius with a bone bruise in his foot that will take a couple weeks, and Jakovic out about the same time with a hamstring pull. With Pena still out another week with a quad strain and Marc Burch’s foot relapsing, DC pretty much only has four healthy defenders left on the roster and all of them except Rice played almost all the minutes in the two games this past week. Unless Talley is ready to start after a month off with concussion, Onalfo is really hoping this match doesn’t go to 120 minutes as his defense will be knackered by 90 at best.

Midfield too will be a concern as Pontius is out, and since Castillo was released, Barklage is out for the season, and Wallace is just barely running after his broken foot, United has no natural player for that left side, unless Moreno gets another start there like he did against Richmond. Santino and Najar of course could play there too, but they played both matches already and really should be second half subs only if necessary. Now, Boskovic being started out left might be a daring choice, but I don’t think Onalfo pulls the trigger on that one.

So, I think DC trots out Allsopp and Hernandez at forward, Moreno, King, Morsink, Boyzzz going left to right across midfield in a very similar to the lineup to the one that beat Richmond, and he saves Boskovic, maybe Quaranta and Najar or even Simms for the second half depending on the situation. In defense, it will obviously be Graye, James, Rice, and McTavish with possibly Talley coming in for one of them if necessary. At least Onalfo gets four subs in Open Cup play, so he can scuffle around some players if he gets desperate.

That should be a decent enough lineup to get DC past Harrisburg. For sure, DC’s long home winning streak against the lower divisions in this tournament will get broken one day, and this DC certainly knows how to disappoint their fans, but I just don’t see it happening in this match. DC has to be desperate for any kind of success and for certain shouldn’t be looking past this match, which is usually the only reason an MLS side loses to a lower division team at home.

Plus, with Harrisburg likely to pack it in and cede possession, DC’s anemic offense should be getting plenty of practice at figuring out how to attack better than the keystone kop displays they’ve put on recently. DC will also have their two most athletic and competitive guys playing central defense to clean up whatever counterattacks Harrisburg comes up with.

So, there you have it. I think this one is a nail-biter for DC fans until halftime, but DC pulls away to a one or two zero win in the second half. Soccer gods willing of course, but they seem to smile upon DC in this tournament lately.

Should DC win, they will face the Crew almost certainly in RFK in the semi-final and could easily face their rivals last year, Seattle, in the final if they get past the Crew since the other semifinal is already set with the Sounders hosting surprise Chivas, who upset Houston in Houston to advance to the final four. Now, I wonder where that final would be played if DC gets past Columbus.

DC United Looks for Revenge Against Islanders

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.