This game was always going to be a trap game for D.C. United. First match in the US Open Cup against a team that is historical good in this competition is always a tough situation, especially on a night where so many MLS teams have lost. And throughout the night, you could tell that United was coming into this game without this group practicing together; at various times Joe Willis, Emiliano Dudar, Nick DeLeon, and Perry Kitchen were yelling out and trying to organize the team. I have to say, if this is the way that the new format works, with NASL, USL Pro, and PDL teams getting close to and actually upsetting MLS teams, I am happy and excited for the way this tournament is growing. United won a hard game, a harder game than if they had played an MLS team.
But United did win this game, and in doing so they get to move on in the Open Cup, to face a likely easier game against the Philadelphia Union, next week at the Maryland Soccerplex. While the Richmond Kickers wouldn't be able to play in MLS week in and week out, they have proven over the years that they are able to go toe to toe with MLS teams throughout an entire Open Cup run. It is not like D.C. United was a Premier League team beating a 4th division side; American soccer has not yet opened up that much.
While D.C. United had the better of possession throughout the entire match against the Richmond Kickers, they never seemed to be that threatening. As I wrote in one part of the live blog for this game, much of the match consisted of United pushing up one wing, bring the ball back to Emiliano Dudar, and then Dudar switching the attack to the other wing. The one time that Kickers goalie Ronnie Pascale wasn't amazing, Maicon Santos was able to cross the ball into Hamdi Salihi for an easy slot home. But it would be harsh on the Richmond Kickers to say that they parked the bus and defended in a shell; while they did play a counter attacking style, they were able to hold possession against United and make dangerous chances.
The Kickers' center backs were able to make that strategy work. Shane Johnson and Jason Yeisley are two big center backs who were, for the most part, able to contain Maicon F. Santos and limit his productivity to a few moments of class. Johnson bodied up Santos on a number of occasions, playing him very physically, and was able to do so without fouling. On the counter, the speed of Chris Agorsor and Edson Elcock put pressure on United's defense, keeping their back line and defensive midfield honest. Their goal may have come from a penalty, but it was created by their speed: Marcelo Saragosa was hustling over to help Emiliano Dudar and clattered into Agorsor in the box.
Without Santos, it would normally come down to the center attacking midfielder to make plays and spring the wingers on runs. However, that is not in Stephen King's playbook. There are two midfielders on this team who can play the attacking midfielder role that way this team needs, and that bodes well for Branko Boskovic's future in the District. And as I said on the latest episode of Filibuster, he does one thing better than anyone else on this team: he puts free kicks into dangerous spots. Neither Lewis Neal nor Andy Najar, who took free kicks before Boskovic came on, where able to make anything with their opportunities. When talking to Boskovic after the game, he said these free kicks are nothing special, that it is just what he does. If that is so, I am willing to bring him back for those kicks alone. It was his corner kick in the second period of extra time that Marcelo Saragosa was able to bury that made the difference and ended the game.
It wasn't pretty, it wasn't easy, but it worked. And with all of the other MLS teams going done in the Open Cup, I'm happy that United was able to grit out a win. Now, a well deserved break.