Let’s save the larger debates for later about whether D.C. United’s season was somehow saved – heck, for that matter, whether coach Ben Olsen’s job was saved – on a gorgeous Tuesday night in the Utah mountains?
And we may need time to digest what, exactly, to make of the irony or all domestic soccer ironies, that one of the worst teams in Major League Soccer history – not by subjective measure, but by a mounting stack of hard statistical evidence – is the new Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup champion.
But for now, let’s just tip our caps to Olsen’s men, who bravely ignored the blistering odds and brushed off any negative energy from a league campaign gone sideways to concoct a moment of redemption, to dig some joy from these months of misery.
D.C. United is the new U.S. Open Cup champion (on the storied tournament’s centennial, 100th version no less). And Lewis Neal, a fairly anonymous figure among some of the real giants who have performed through the years for the Black and Red, now has his place in club history. It was Neal’s goal just before half that held in up the 1-0 win at a stunned Rio Tinto Stadium.
In addition to $250,000 prize money and the right to feel good about something for a while, United will claim the CONCACAF Champions League berth that goes to each year’s Open Cup winner.
Relentless, determined, committed pressure from D.C. United meant more Tuesday over 90 minutes than the yawning and telling 36-point gap between the teams in Major League Soccer’s standings. Yes, 36 points. United has just three wins in league play all year (a 3-21-6 record, dead last in the East and last for months in our own weekly rankings)
But that’s tournament play, and that’s what makes single-elimination competition like the Open Cup special. Just as Wigan showed the world six months ago while claiming the FA Cup implausibly, a lesser team can pour enough effort into one match to smite the giants over 90 minutes.
Real Salt Lake, with the better talent and the home-field edge, looked strangely out of sorts or tentative (or maybe a little combination of both) in Tuesday’s early minutes. Unable to break down United’s recessed defense, the home team needed half an hour to concoct its first good scoring opportunity. That came when Ned Grabavoy joined Sebastian Velasquez to find Joao Plata’s clever run through, only to see the shot sail high and wide.
For all of RSL’s possession, the men from Utah weren’t doing much with it. And it cost Jason Kreis’ team just before intermission.
Olsen’s plan of “bunker and break strategically” paid off just before the break when Perry Kitchen, DCU’s best man to that point, launched a sequence that finished with a loose ball in RSL’s penalty area. Neal pounced and his well-placed, well-hit left-footer gave RSL ‘keeper Nick Rimando little chance.
RSL turned up the pressure immediately after the break, but timely interventions from center back Dejan Jakovic (who gets beaten up regularly by fans and media) and from goalkeeper Bill Hamid kept United’s lead. Hamid’s 81st minute stop on a close-in effort from RSL striker Alvaro Saborio marked his night’s best work.
Meanwhile, center back Ethan White may have put in the best 90 minutes yet in a United shirt.
RSL, finding the urgency that so dearly missed through the first 45 minutes, got closer and closer. Velasquez’s big shot off the cross bar in the 60th minute. Ten minutes after that, Nat Borchers went just wide with a header and Saborio went just high in stoppage time.