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D.C. United comfortable as underdogs in U.S. Open Cup final

Dejan Jakovic

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WASHINGTON – Ben Olsen walked into the media work room at RFK Stadium on Sunday afternoon, a smile on his face and bounce in his step. Turning to the collection of reporters who’d gathered to speak with him after D.C. United’s late-morning training session, the third year coach chuckled, shrugged, and offered his greeting.

“Well, here goes nothing.”

You can’t blame Olsen for his levity. Wading through the depths of a historically bad season, he’s found a way to guide his club to the U.S. Open Cup final, giving United a chance to find some joy in an otherwise funereal campaign.

“We’re excited about the opportunity we have,” Olsen reiterated on Sunday.”Not many people are giving us a chance in this game – but we’ve decided we’re going to show up anyways and see if we can’t win it.”

D.C. enter Tuesday evening’s final with Real Salt Lake carrying a strange bit of confidence. There’s been a positive energy at the club’s training sessions as of late, even after the club’s latest loss, a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of lowly Toronto FC. For a 3-21-6 club who haven’t won a single league match away from home all year, D.C. United have somehow managed to keep their chins up.

“It’s easy to do that when you know you’re in a final,” Dwayne De Rosario noted after Sunday’s training session. “It’s been a while since we’ve played the semis and obviously there’s a lot of thinking and games in between – some results we weren’t’ happy about. But we can shed some light on a very disappointing year with this win.”

United’s improbable run through to the final started predictably enough – they needed extra time and penalty kicks to dispatch of the third tier Richmond Kickers in May, and looked like a side destined to exit the tournament early. But they somehow found a rhythm, playing the sort of attractive, possession-oriented soccer that’s eluded them in league matches.

They’d ride a De Rosario hat trick to victory in the fourth round against Philadelphia; Chris Pontius and Joe Willis would guide United to a surprising quarterfinal victory over New England a month later. Their semi-final matchup with Chicago in August proved even more surprising – De Rosario found himself on the scoresheet again, increasing his tournament-leading goal count to five after scoring the winner in United’s 2-0 victory over the Fire.

United have good reason to be optimistic. After struggling with injuries throughout the year, D.C. are finally healthy – allowing them to gel and build chemistry, something they’ve been lacking all year. Defender Daniel Woolard – who’s been hampered by a hamstring injury – saw action at the weekend against Toronto, and Olsen says he’s good to go against RSL. Pontius, who’s been a question mark all year with an assortment of injuries, said on Sunday he feels 100% fit for the first time in 2013.

Still, United temper their confidence with realism. Their Open Cup victories at Richmond and Chicago remain their only road victories of the year, and they’re on pace to set all-time records for futility in multiple categories.

“There’s no two ways about it,” De Rosario said matter-of-factly. “Salt Lake is the favorite to win…[they’re] a good team. I think they’ve found a recipe that works for them and they’ve stuck with it. Anytime you go there you know you’re gonna get a battle.”

If United are to pull off the upset, they’ll need to throw a wrench in RSL’s possession game, something Olsen and Pontius are both very aware of. “We have to look to eliminate their possession and force them into tough decisions,” Pontius told SBI yesterday afternoon. “When we do win the ball we have to be patient with ourselves. We can’t just play a counterattacking game, they’ll eventually just pick you apart if you do that. You won’t have the legs for 90 minutes to do it – we need to be patient and make the right decisions on the ball.”

For their part, RSL aren’t taking this final lightly. In the middle of a frantic Supporters’ Shield race, Jason Kreis rested most of his starting XI against Vancouver this past weekend. Perennial contenders for the past half-decade, the Claret and Cobalt have but a single cup to their name, something Kreis himself seems keen on changing.

“We said for the next six weeks that the most important match for us is the Open Cup final. Yes, we want to compete for the Supporters’ Shield, but for me the chance to win something in a one off game has to take precedence. We are also very excited for the opportunity that we have, and really excited to play that matchup in front of our fans.”

In Ben Olsen’s eyes, D.C.’s unexpected success in Open Cup play is indicative of an underlying strength he sees in his squad. Whether that strength can push them through another 90 minutes remains to be seen.

“I think getting to the finals in a season like this says a lot about these guys,” Olsen noted before concluding his interview session. “The fact that the wheels didn’t come off of this team, or this club… I’ve always said I’d be the first to hold my hand up and be responsible for the season we’ve had – for these guys to pull together and find themselves in a final is a credit to them, a credit to the club. Winning it would obviously take that to the next level.”

“(Real) Salt Lake are a great team, and it’s not the easiest place to play in the league. But… we have a belief.”


  1. Ben Olsen needs to go. He’s simply not a good coach. It was real gamble appointing him as Head Coach, little to no experience in coaching. And it shows.

  2. I don’t have a dog in the fight, but I can’t help rooting for RSL since they’ll almost certainly do better in the 2014-2015 CCL. Best of luck to them both, but for MLS fans’ sakes, let’s hope RSL walk away with the trophy.

  3. Commendations from one Pablo to another for the well written article.

    Both coaches have put an emphasis on the Open Cup final by putting out second choice teams over the weekend but the only difference is RSL’s B team is more quality than DCU’s. Still Kriess and co. aren’t taking United lightly at all.

    RSL should win all the same and DC will be left with focusing on revamping their team over the offseason and trying to get their stadium. RSL fans need to come to grips with real possibility that Jason Kriess will leave the team. He’s leaving RSL in good shape and hopefully with a few pieces of hardware.

  4. Looking over the lineups — on paper — I think you’d have to say that RSL is better at every position. Even still, the teams have to play the game on the field. There, United can win.

  5. Olsen and co. are happy being the underdog so they have another excuse when we get smashed. This team is full of excuses. Olsen over the weekend said he put out a team to lose and it was “that simple.” What coach says that? How were those players supposed to feel, when almost that entire starting XI were at one point starters for us.

    I hate that the media referred to that lineup as our “reserve team.” It wasn’t. And calling it that gives Olsen’s excuses more power. That was our second string. There’s a difference.

    I’m just furious with how this team has been handled. We’ve lost all dignity in ourselves. We might be a losing team, but it’s Olsen and co. who have called us losers. And as a 96’er, that’s the worst thing one of our own has said about us.

    • You’re over-stating your case. Yes, at times Nyassi and Shanosky, even Collin Martin have started for United before, but that only goes to show what a shambles the season was with injuries and an unprecedented number of mid-season releases and transfers. If McDonald, Augusto and Raphael were shadows of what United hoped, Those guys wouldn’t have started. If Rochat hadn’t wanted a quick transfer, the Iapichino wouldn’t even be on the team. Michael Seaton starting? This was very much a reserve side, and several of those players won’t even be invited back. Yes, two of those players are Pajoy and Saragosa, which does point up the very questionable judgments the team made last year and in the offseason. I am certainly not defending those judgments now, when I was vociferous in my opposition to relying on those players for more than a year now. What it nice to read, though, is that Olsen no longer sees those guys as first-team players. They aren’t, and should never have been put in that position. Time to move on from those mistakes.

      The lineup that went out on Saturday (with the exception of Jared Jeffrey) was a collection of young players that aren’t ready to succeed in MLS and a few older players who don’t have what it takes to succeed in MLS. On top of that, when Woolard went to the bench for the second half, the team was playing with only one “real” center back in Shanosky. As limited as Saragosa is as a DM, he’s simply awful as a CB, and I’d say that as weak as Iapichino is as a fullback, he’s much worse and completely unprepared to play DM. The second half lineup was a disaster, and that showed up in the defensive breakdowns that led to 3 TFC goals.

      The lineup we’ll send out against RSL is escond-class compared to RSL’s, but ti really represents our best (with the possible exception of having Thorrington play ahead of Jeffrey).

  6. There’s been a positive energy at the club’s training sessions as of late, even after the club’s latest loss, a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of lowly Toronto FC. For a 3-21-6 club who haven’t won a single league match away from home all year, D.C. United have somehow managed to keep their chins up. “It’s easy to do that when you know you’re in a final,” Dwayne De Rosario noted after Sunday’s training session.
    Easy to say when a terrible season does not result in relegation.

    Not saying it is possible in MLS at this point, but certainly affects the mindset and attitude of the bottom tier clubs.

    • “Easy to say when a terrible season does not result in relegation.

      Not saying it is possible in MLS at this point, but certainly affects the mindset and attitude of the bottom tier clubs.”

      I have always thought this in MLB ( yeah , baseball ). Relegation would be healthy in all our sports…

      • Relegation would be a great way to kill the league.

        You think the billionaires who buy in are interested in funding a second or third tier team? Without that assurance, many of them would leave. Until MLS, and the lower leagues, for that matter, are entirely stable, which will likely never happen, this will not happen.

      • Oh, please, the billionaires will figure out the way to protect their investments. In the promotion/relegation sytem, the billionaires have an insentive to invest in the roster and put out a more competitive team, which improves the overall product quality in the league. Promotion/Relegation system works well in numerous countries, not just the rich ones. Just look at Mexico, whose clubs consitently beat MLS clubs in the Concacaf Champions League.

      • I dunno, Dude, seems to work just fine everywhere else in the world…

        Besides, there’s nothing to say that we can’t put an american spin on relegation. It could be as easy as adding a caveat like “finish bottom two more than two seasons in a row and you have to have a home-and-home series with the league 2 champ and runner up. Winners moves up or stay up.” It would be very hard for current owners to argue with that kind system as it certainly keeps the advantage firmly on the top table team’s side and gives the top table team many chances to stay up.

        This way, a one-off disaster season or a rebuilding year isn’t the end of your team being in top table, but would threaten punishment to the perennial sh*tshows like Chivas USA and Toronto that never seem to do anything other than rebuild. Plus, it provides a reward for the strongest teams of the lower leagues to “expand” into the major league (and TV coverage) in an organic grass roots way.

        Current Parity aside, if the top brass is serious about raising the level of play in MLS, they shouldn’t fear this kind of competition.

      • The point is, it doesn’t work just fine everywhere else in the world. Quick, name the last team to win the EPL title after being promoted in the previous decade. Got it? (Rovers, by the way, promoted to 1st in ’89, went to EPL as a founder, won in ’94.) how about Spain? (Deportiva la coruna, promoted 91, won 2000) Italy? Germany? Relegation rewards the rich by making it impossible for less wealthy clubs to accumulate talent.

        Let’s say you’re a relegation-threatened club. Your budget is ten million dollars. Do you buy a seventeen year old who might be great in two years? Or a 25 year old who will be good enough this year? Do you work on long term chemistry or short term fixes? Do you play your starters in the league, or the cup?

        Relegation is one reason for the stratification of the European game. Lack of it helps parity in the us game.

    • what exactly is the point of your statement? And are you suggesting that Wigan last year, and Portsmouth a few years back werent excited to be in the finals, despite being relegated?

      Relegation is not going to happen any time soon, if at all, so pointing it out in situations like this is just a waste of time.

      • My pont was exactly what I said, the mindset of lower tier clubs is different when relegation is not a possbility.

        I am sure Wigan was thrilled to be in a cup final.

        I am also sure they did not feel good about their season or “keep their chins up” due to that fact.

        Again, I know relegation is not a going to happen in MLS soon, just making an observation. Sorry if it did not fit your guidelines for a valuable use of my time.

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