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DC faces an old friend in US Open Cup

DC United takes on the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in fourth round of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and while the two sides have only faced each other once before, there has been plenty of familiarity over the years.

DC United, along with the rest of qualifying MLS teams, enters the fourth round of the US Open Cup in Pittsburgh to take on the Riverhounds at their new home, Highmark Stadium situated along the Monongahela River. United defeated the Riverhounds 2-1 in their only meeting on the field way back in the fourth round of the 2003 US Open Cup, but DC’s roots with the Riverhounds go much deeper than that. DC’s current general Manager, Dave Kasper was Pittsburgh’s inaugural GM when the team was founded back in 1998 and joined United at the end of 2001. Throughout the years since, there has been plenty of player transactions back and forth between the clubs.

Pittsburgh has had a rocky run recently and had declared bankruptcy last November, but quickly got its finances back in order and has been a solid team, steadily getting better so far this season. Despite a very unheralded roster almost completely turned over since last year, they have made their way to this round of the Cup without having given up a goal in the tournament and with a surprising 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rowdies whose roster boasts plenty of former MLS talent including former DC forward Maicon Santos and coached by former DC coach Thomas Rongen as well. Other MLS ties on Tampa include Marcelo Saragosa, Matt Pickens and guys like Ben Sweat (14th overall pick by Crew) and Martin Nunez, a crafty Uruguyan twice offered MLS contracts only to turn them down, so beating that team clearly shows the Riverhounds can play.

DC on the other hand is a bit of a wild card considering their history and current situation. They won the Open Cup in 2013, but were summarily drummed from the Cup in their first round match last year in Rochester. Granted it was a game marred by a biblical storm producing two weather delays of over 2 hours in total, but DC coach Ben Olsen followed his tradition of clearing the bench to make his starting XI in that match, as well as an inopportune red card, didn’t help matters either. Chances are that is what he’ll do tomorrow night in Pittsburgh as well, minus the red card hopefully. With a lot of banged up players on the roster and having recently been through quite a rough stretch of games, I don’t see Olsen burning too many starters in this match, although some will certainly be available.

The only regular starters I think likely to start the match are central defenders Bobby Boswell (because Steve Birnbaum is suspended from the red card in last year’s Open Cup loss), Kofi Opare and maybe Taylor Kemp as left back, although it’s possible a guy like Luis Silva or Markus Halsti or even a guy coming back from injury like Chris Pontius gets a start to get some game fitness, but I doubt it. More likely those guys come off the bench if they make the trip at all. I suspect Olsen starts all the players from the bottom of the bench in the remaining seven to eight field positions. I’m thinking along the lines of Conor Doyle and Facundo Coria as forwards, Luke Mishu, Collin Martin, Jared Jeffrey, and Miguel Aguilar across midfield from left to right, then Kemp, Opare, Boswell and Jalen Robinson left to right across the backline in front of Andrew Dykstra or possibly Travis Worra in the nets. Maybe a guy like Silva, Pontius, or Michael Farfan gets in there if healthy, but I suspect Olsen would rather see what his young guns can do against third tier opposition. Could be a Michael Seaton sighting too if he is in country and still in between loan deals.

The Riverhounds used a roster mostly full of players unknown to me to oust the Rowdies, but one name stood out. Midfielder Danny Earls is the current Riverhounds captain and the Irish midfielder has played against DC before in the Open Cup for Rochester as well as 18 appearances for Colorado when they won an MLS Cup in 2010. English midfielder Rob Vincent is clearly a danger man as well with goals in both Open Cup matches for Pittsburgh including the lone goal in the Rowdies win. He also has a total of 11 goals in 14 appearances so far this year. Looks like they play a sort of 4-3-3 with Vincent and Scotsman Kevin Kerr the wide players around center forward Miro Cabrilo, with Earls and Ghanaian Stephen Opai pinched in behind them. Also looks like they win mostly with strong midfield play and a recently tightened up defense. Almost all their wins this year being by one goal and barely averaging over 1.5 goals per match.

As for current form, that couldn’t be worse for DC as they are coming off their second loss in a row and fourth loss in their last seven games, while Pittsburgh has a seven game unbeaten streak as well as won 8 of 10 at home this year. They did lose their last match due to an untimely red card (Earls of course) but were on a six game unbeaten streak in all competitions before that. On the bright side, DC is 31-11-4 (2-2 in PKs after official draws) in the Open Cup overall and 8-2-1 (PK win over Hershey after a draw) overall against the third division (USL) although those two losses came on the road. DC is 19-4-2 overall against lower divisions in the Open Cup, but only 5-4-0 on the road in their first Open Cup match. Pittsburgh has a 1-3 record against MLS teams in the Open Cup, but have never lost by more than 1 and they beat Colorado 2-0 back in 2001 to make the quarterfinals which is the farthest they ever gone in this tournament. Since that win they have lost to the Fire twice, 3-2 in 2002 and 2-1 last year, sandwiched around that DC 2-1 win in 2003. Pittsburgh is also 9-10-3 overall in the tournament.

DC tends to be an all or nothing team in the Open Cup, if they get past their opener, they usually advance pretty far having made the finals five times (3 championships) and the semi-finals three more times for eight final fours in 19 years; however they have been tossed in the first round four times and did not play in the tournament three more times. So, they have made the final four or busted out early 12 of 16 Open Cups they have played in. Tomorrow night’s match could easily make or break DC’s Open Cup run this year and it being the last major trophy the team has won makes this tournament special.

The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is the oldest continuously running cup competition in the United States and among the oldest in the world. It was established in 1914 and remains a single elimination tournament open to all levels of amateur and professional soccer. The winning team gets its name engraved on the Dewar Challenge Trophy which has been permanently retired and is on display at the US Soccer House in Chicago. MLS teams enter the draw in the fourth round.

Note: Ben Olsen is the only player in the modern era, beginning in 1995, to win the Open Cup as a player and a coach. Some of the player movement between the clubs over the years: DC signed Brazilian forward Thiago Martins, the reigning A league MVP after he scored the lone goal for Pittsburgh in that 2003 match with DC. Former DC players, Greg Janicki and Boyzz Khumalo were lured away from Pittsburgh in 2008 as well. And players have gone the other way as Abdul Thompson Conteh scored 14 goals for DC back in 2001, but was released in 2002 to sign with Pittsburgh. Former DC forward Joseph Ngwenya made his way to the Riverhounds via the Richmond Kickers after being released by DC as well.

Daniel Woolard

DC Hosts Revamped Revs in Open Cup

DC United takes on the New England Revolution in the second stage of the MLS qualifiers for the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup tomorrow night at the Soccerplex in Boyds, Maryland, United’s 17th straight home match in the oldest Cup tournament in the country.

The Open Cup, especially the play-in matches have long been a place for reserves and sometime starters to show their stuff, and with DC coming off a bad loss to NY and facing a short week having to travel to Houston for their next MLS match Friday night, it seems almost certain United will go with a mixed bag of players in this match like they did against Philly a couple weeks ago.

But, considering Nowak trotted out his entire starting lineup, and New England now has a couple of shiny new players to integrate into their tactics, Nicol might just play his big guns to make a run at the Dewar Trophy they last won in 2007, and if the play of Benny Feilhaber and Rajko Lekic this past weekend against KC is any indication, that could be trouble if Nicol goes that route.

Of course predicting Open Cup lineups is a crap shoot, but DC coach Ben Olsen seems pretty likely to go with a very similar lineup to the one that felled Philly. I’d expect Charlie Davies, Chris Pontius, Fred, Bill Hamid, and quite possibly Dax McCarty, Clyde Simms, Dejan Jakovic, and just maybe Marc Burch and Perry Kitchen will get the night off.

So, that leaves rookie Blake Brettschneider and Josh Wolff (or Joseph Ngwenya or maybe Santino Quaranta if Wolff is rested too, but I don’t think so) starting at forward. I think Santino plays the left side of midfield while Branko Boskovic gets the start in central midfield with Kurt Morsink, and Andy Najar on the right. It could be McCarty will play centrally as he only played 45 minutes against NY which would push Boskovic to the left. Frankly, I would do this (and play iron man Simms, too) as it gives you a chance to assess whether this formation has any future. Boskovic is playing so well lately, Olsen simply has to figure out a combination that gets him on the field other than mop up duty and reserve league starts.

Defense will be interesting. Against Philly, Olsen used Daniel Wollard on the left, Rodrigo Bresesco, Ethan White, and Brandon Barklage on the right and that lineup played very well together once Breseco got hurt and Jakovic replaced him. Perhaps Breseco gets another chance, and that would be prudent to see if he redeems himself, but I wonder if Olsen won’t want to give Kitchen more time to integrate back into the team and see how the rookie tandem with White works out. I wonder if Burch will be sat too. He was horrendous against NY, and he might get another start to get some confidence back after that thrashing he took. If so, then I think Korb gets the start too to see how the three rookies play together and if that will be viable in MLS play, if not, then it’s Wollard and Barklage on the corners for sure. Pat Onstad in goal has already been all but announced.

As for the Revs, Nicol is a tough one to figure out. He has rarely taken this tournament seriously, and indeed the last time DC faced NE, Nicol gifted United a trip to the final by playing one lone starter, in a semi-final where the Revs were the defending Cup champions no less. Of course DC took advantage and then edged Charleston for the Dewar Trophy in 2008. Thanks Steve!

New England also has a road trip to LA to take on Chivas looming this weekend too, so Nicol seems likely to be a bit cautious. If I had to guess, he won’t start his big guns, but they will come along and play if it’s close late. I suspect he plays Zach Shilawski and Kenny Mansally (or maybe Kheli Dube, but he seems to have dropped out of the Revs plans lately after signing a relatively big deal this past off season). Perhaps there will be an Ilija Stolica sighting, but I suspect that big stiff is buried deep in Nicol’s doghouse, so that seems pretty unlikely.

In midfield, I think Nicol gives Former French International, Ousmane Dabo a shot at his first MLS minutes after recently returning to fitness. Likely he will play centrally along with whatever bruiser of the week Nicol chooses to loose on United, Pat Phelan or Stephen McCarthy (or maybe even Shalrie Joseph gets his old job back after playing forward this past weekend). Then the Zak Boggs should play the left and Sainey Nyassi on the right. Maybe Tierney plays the left midfield, but I think it way more likely Nicol rests his creaky left back Didier Domi, and plays Tierney as the left back.

In NE’s defense, Tierney on the left as mentioned, then Ryan Cochrane and Darrius Barnes in the center, and probably Kevin Alston at right back. Unless maybe one of his starting central defenders gets the nod to start, most likely Franco Coria as it won’t be long before he gets some mandatory MLS rest with the suspensions he has looming in his future, then Barnes will play the right. Seems likely Bobby Shuttleworth plays in the nets, which means a big sigh of relief as United’s forwards can leave their cranial protectors at home for this one.

Looking at those matchups, DC has about as many positives as they have negatives. Brettschneider and Wolff (or Ngwenya) are about even with Papa Gino Cochrane and Long Throw Barnes. Boskovic and Morsink should have an edge over Dabo and Phelan (or McCarthy), but not if Joseph plays. Najar and Barklage on DC’s right should have an edge over the Energizer Bunny Boggs and under-rated utility man Tierney, but Tino and Woolard (or Burch) are even at best against Nyassi and Alston or Long Throw Barnes.

Defensively is pretty dicey too. Mansally tore up DC last year and Shilawski threw one into the net against DC a few weeks ago, so they could easily give Ole Breseco and White troubles, but Kitchen playing would swing this DC’s way. Obviously, if Nyassi and Boggs pin back Najar and Quaranta respectively, then DC is in for a world of trouble.

It will get even worse if the game is tied and Nicol sends in the troops, Feilhaber and Lekic. Then again, Olsen has some troops he can use too, and NE needed a second half comeback to overcome a dog tired Sporting KC team playing their fifth straight away match last week. So, even with their new talent on the field, they aren’t invincible by any means.

Should be interesting. Should United win, they are scheduled to play Sporting KC with the final MLS slot in the Open Cup proper on the line. It will be DC’s first away match in this tournament since losing to the Harrisburg City-Islanders in 2007. I say scheduled because until United actually takes the field somewhere other than RFK or the Soccerplex in this tournament, I won’t believe it. I don’t put it past Payne in the slightest to find some way to get this match switched to friendly confines.