Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By PABLO MAURER
SANDY, Utah– Now that the dust has settled and the champagne and beer have been cleaned off the locker room walls, many MLS fans are probably still in disbelief that the worst team in MLS managed to storm into Rio Tinto Stadium and leave with a piece of silverware.
So how did United manage to pull off the upset? Aside from a few lucky bounces, the team ground this one out via a trio of unlikely contributors.
In previous rounds of the Open Cup, United has found favorable results in predictable ways. In matches against Philadephia, New England, and Chicago, the contributors were the names you’d expect to see on a United scoresheet: Pontius. De Rosario. Deleon. Tuesday evening’s match, on the other hand, was a bit of an anomaly.
D.C. pulled the rope-a-dope on Real, allowing them to have the ball at will. RSL were dominant in possession, laying claim to over 70% of it, and it looked to be by design—many teams have mirrored United’s approach: sit back, disrupt play through midfield, and force RSL wide. Behind that game plan were a trio of unexpected heroes: Lewis Neal, John Thorrington, and Ethan White.
Neal—picked up as depth by United prior to the start of the 2012 season—was key in the center of the park. Last night’s performance was a perfect example of the style of play Neal has displayed during his entire tenure with D.C.: work hard—more importantly, though, work smart. It’s an approach many older players have to adopt when they lose a bit of pace, one that’s led Ben Olsen to proclaim that Neal “has the highest soccer I.Q. of anyone on this team.”
After featuring heavily for D.C. in 2012—and scoring one of the most memorable goals in franchise history, a game-winner against Columbus late in the season that sent United to the playoffs—Neal has struggled with injuries this year. His lack of playing time, he’s been on the pitch for a total of 292 minutes, made it even less likely that he’d play a key part in such a huge game.
But there he was in the 45th minute, rushing towards a loose ball in the box. His strike, which eluded RSL keeper Nick Rimando and skimmed inside the far post, was United’s lone shot on goal.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling for me personally,” an emotional Neal told SBI during United’s postgame celebration. “Three or four months ago I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to get back and play, with the things I had going on. It was a worrying time for me personally. If you’d have said to me three months ago I’d be playing in the Cup final, I’d have bitten your hand off at the chance, because I”d never have believed you.”
Thorrington may be United’s hardest working player. Despite being among United’s most senior members, the former Chicago and Vancouver man was in constant motion, and was perfectly positioned to eat up the few passes that RSL played towards United’s defensive midfielders.
For a player of fairly small stature, Thorrington does a lot of the dirty work that some players shy away from. Calling him an “enforcer” would be a bit of an exaggeration, but under Thorrington’s watch in midfield, no opponent’s harsh challenge goes unpunished. It’s an authentic brand of confidence and swagger that comes with age, and his teammates recognize that: in his first year with the club, Thorrington has sported the captain’s armband on multiple occasions.
“We’re here for a reason. We beat some good teams,” proclaimed an exuberant Thorrington after the final. “Particularly in the previous rounds, we handily beat some very good teams. We deserved to be here. I’m just happy. I’m happy that we stayed together—this is huge. This wasn’t given to us, we worked for this. Everyone’s been playing an important part. ”
Completing the trio, Ethan White has grown by leaps and bounds in 2013, and the final was a testament to that. His hard work was evident all night. Whether he was winning aerial challenges in the box or forcing Joao Plata or Olmes Garcia to the corner flag, White was crucial to D.C. United’s unexpectedly strong defensive performance.
“It’s nice to see that he’s had a couple games in a row and that he’s growing,” Ben Olsen said, reflecting on White’s performance. “His concentration level is higher, his feet are better, he’s making better decisions. And physically, he’s the real deal.”
White’s fine form in recent matches couldn’t have come at a better time. Though there are many question marks heading into the offseason, his spot on the roster seems, at the moment, to be completely safe—something that can’t be said for some of his fellow central defenders.