Another year, another successful defense of the Coffee Pot Cup.
D.C. United defeated the Charleston Battery 3-1 tonight at Charleston's Blackbaud Stadium, behind goals from Maicon Santos, trialist Ryan Richter, and Designated Player Hamdi Salihi. Despite a spirited effort from the hosts, United rarely looked troubled on the way to a second straight Carolina Challenge Cup victory. More importantly, they also earned their fans some free beer.
United opened the scoring in the 13th minute after Branko Boskovic led a charge forward that saw the Montenegrin find Maicon Santos, whose ferocious shot left Charleston keeper Kevin Klasila with no chance. After a lull, Charleston would equalize after lively winger Charlie Romero rounded trialist Jose Burciaga Jr. and found onrushing midfielder Jose Cuevas for a point-blank header in the 29th minute.
DC needed just two minutes to take the lead back. Burciaga got up the left wing and served in a fine cross for fellow trialist Ryan Richter to head past Klasila. The quick exchange of goals seemed to up the energy level, as both teams held control for a few minutes before the halftime whistle.
Little of note happened in the second half until the 76th minute, where Charleston midfielder Mark Wiltse scythed down Danny Cruz on the right wing. Wiltse was justifiably given a straight red card, while Cruz had to be subbed off and needed the trainer's help to walk around the field and back to the bench.
After a spell where the Battery still had decent energy, United eventually seized control with some spells of possession before Andy Najar's fantastic run down the right, aided in part by a 1-2 with Josh Wolff, allowed the Academy product to slide a low cross in for Hamdi Salihi to sidefoot home with ease. The 88th minute goal was a thing of beauty, and hopefully is the kind of thing we see on a regular basis in 2012.
Read on for some thoughts on who did well and who struggled:
United's attack looked rather inventive, with both forwards, Boskovic, and especially Danny Cruz causing a lot of problems for the Battery. Cruz's ability to isolate defenders 1v1 caused him to be fouled several times and also saw him have what looked like a very strong penalty shout turned down by the ref, who had a dicey night overall. Boskovic usually appeared to have more time than anyone else on the field, while Santos stood out with some excellent play as a target man. Given that what DC brought him in for was to play with his back to goal and get himself on the scoresheet from time to time, you'd have to say he did very well on the night.
On the trialist front, it was a mixed bag. Richter looks good enough to have earned a deal as a utility midfielder/forward; his touch is better than I expected, he moves within the group well, and he has some ideas to contribute rather than just athleticism or work rate. It was also nice to see someone bang in a header after recent years.
On the other hand, Burciaga's cross to Richter did not cover up his struggles defending. Battery midfielder Charlie Romero looks like a find for Charleston, but he's hardly a Landon Donovan or Mauro Rosales. When Romero would take Burciaga on, the one-time MLS Best XI winner (2006) couldn't make the quick turn necessary to stop him. When Romero decided to hold back and make a pass, Burciaga didn't have the burst to cause problems on the pass.
United made four changes at the half:
The fact that Chris Korb was used at left back as opposed to Brazilian trialist Guilherme was interesting. With Ben Olsen saying that Saturday's finale against the Columbus Crew would be treated like a dress rehearsal for the season opener, one wonders if a) Guilherme will be given the required minutes to impress, b) he's already won a deal that just needs to be ironed out, or c) we'll just be doing without a back-up for Woolard, which means cycling people in at right back if necessary. It's worth noting that Andy Najar, Ethan White, Cruz, and Marcelo Saragosa have all played in that role at some point.
The second half was a rather ragged affair, as Charleston simply lacked the ideas necessary to create any threat to the DC goal, while United seemed content to disrupt the Battery (Stephen King was particularly effective in this regard). Charleston did force a save out of Andrew Dykstra after he replaced Willis, and had a couple more shots go well wide, but they were somewhere short of menacing. The positives for United were Santos continuing to stand out when given the chance to post up and distribute, as well as the solid defensive work from Nick DeLeon and Korb down the left. Santos in particular deserves mention as probably the Man of the Match; Charleston never did look comfortable whenever he got the ball, and he scored a pretty nice goal to boot.
The red card opened the game up for United. Charleston pretty much ran out of steam within five minutes of the incident, and United had plenty of the ball. One stretch of possession saw DC string together at least 15 straight passes without the Battery getting so much as a touch.
Finally, United delivered the coup-de-grace. Najar - who had only a minute before torched his man and crossed for Salihi, who almost turned that chance in despite being sandwiched by defenders - charged forward with the ball, beating a defender, before dishing to Wolff. No one on the team loves playing a 1-2 more than Wolff, and it was no surprise that he one-timed a return pass in behind the defense for Najar, who served up a perfect low cross for Salihi to finish off with what can only be described as "ease."
It was a lovely goal, but even more vital is what it indicates for this United attack's future. The combination of technical ability, speed down the wings, intelligent movement, and a high level of understanding amongst the returning players should be deadly. This sensational goal didn't even require Dwayne De Rosario to be anywhere on the field. If United can continue to attack like this - passing quickly while also moving forward with pace and conviction - we will be among the highest-scoring teams in MLS.
The only sour note is the possible injury to Cruz, who looked good tonight. If he's out for a while, DeLeon becomes our first option off the bench on the wings, and in general your wide midfielders are the players most often substituted. If you're winning, it's a non-disruptive place to add fresh legs. If you're losing, you can change the game with a new winger. An injury to Cruz doesn't exactly put us in a jam, but it's far from convenient. Cruz is useful on both wings and in just about any situation, so hopefully it's nothing too serious.