“That’s why they play the game”
This often-used sports cliche is no truer this evening than it was nearly 90 years ago when it was first uttered by legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel.
D.C. United (above photo: Tony Quinn) stunned the American soccer world this evening with an improbable 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake in the 100th edition of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final in Sandy, Utah. The win for United, it’s 3rd Open Cup title (in addition to 1996 and 2008 wins) and 13th major piece of hardware, was the unlikeliest of all considering their enormous underdog status heading into the match.
After all the 2013 version of United is teetering on inclusion on the short list of one of the worst teams MLS has ever seen in it’s 17-year history. Yet, in spite of them sitting 17 places behind RSL in the MLS standings, they came to Utah with nothing to lose and found a way to gut out what will no doubt be a famous 1-0 win. Lewis Neal’s 45th minute strike gave United all they would need on a night that saw them put for the the type of effort it’s been missing in league play all season long. In this Open Cup competition, United went 4-0-1 including beating four MLS teams, the last two of which were road wins in Chicago and tonight’s effort in Sandy, Utah. This of course is in stark contrast to their road efforts in MLS this season where they are a staggering 0-13-3 in 16 matches.
Head coach Ben Olsen has been making a point for about 4-5 weeks now about his team building towards the Open Cup final. Considering United has long been out of any type of playoff chase, this was easy enough to believe. However, United’s league play over the past 4-5 weeks gave no indication that United would be giving the heavily-favored RSL much of a match. That’s exactly what United gave them.
Stout defending and opportunistic movements going forward were pretty much the game plan for United. Frustrate RSL and hope they start to feel the pressure. For 45 minutes it worked like a charm. While RSL was certainly dictating the tempo of the match (nearly 70% of possession), they really didn’t garner any dangerous chances in the first forty-five minutes aside from a rasping drive from Joao Plata that sailed high and tight past Bill Hamid’s near post.
Then United struck against the run of play (below) in the 45th minute to put all kinds of doubt in the minds of RSL’s heavily favored squad. John Thorrington turned two RSL defenders deep along the left side of the penalty area and hit a dangerous ball into the area. The ball caromed off RSL defender Carlos Salcedo and right into the path of Lewis Neal who plowed his left-footed shot past Nick Rimando and into the far side of the goal for an improbable 1-0 lead for the Black-and-Red.
Real Salt Lake continued their heavy pressure throughout the remainder of the match but United by all rights should have been a man up in second-half stoppage time when Nick Rimando desperately came 40 yards out of his goal to take down United forward Conor Doyle but incredibly the game official only issued a yellow-card to Rimando and kept RSL at full strength.
United held off RSL twice in the dying seconds of the match when Hamid came up big in the net corralling a half-bike attempt from RSL substitute Devon Sandoval and then somehow managing to gather a loose ball that almost deflected into his goal via a touch from team mate Luis Silva with just seconds to spare.
After Hamid sent his punt flying, United’s bench poured out onto the field in celebration as the most unlikely of scenarios came to fruition this evening in Sandy, Utah. People now will start to question the heart of RSL as they have now lost two major championship matches on their home field. Tonight’s loss to United and their 1-0 loss to Monterrey in the final of the CONCACAF Champions League in April of 2012 when only a draw against the Mexican giants would have seen MLS’ first true continental champion.
That’s why the play the game..
With the win, incredibly, United now has secured a spot in the 2014-2015 CONCACAF Champions League. United, on the brink of becoming one of the poorest teams in recent MLS memory, will have an opportunity in the summer of 2014 to start a journey to become Champions of CONCACAF.
United now will somehow attempt to turn their attention to the remaining four MLS matches to play beginning on Friday night at RFK Stadium when they welcome the Chicago Fire to town.