If you came to the Maryland SoccerPlex expecting a typical MLS match but in a smaller more intimate setting, you were sadly mistaken. This wasn't a typical MLS match. But it was a typical U.S. Open Cup match.
With a goal from Antoine Hoppenot in just the second minute of extra time, the Philadelphia Union earned a 2-1 victory over D.C. United. It wasn't pretty of course, but no Open Cup match ever is. It wasn't well-officiated, but no Open Cup match ever is. This is a very different competition from the one United has been dominating during the regular season, and it showed tonight. They didn't pressure hard enough or quick enough, some players took plays off, and the finishing inside the box wasn't what it should have been from any of United's forwards.
United didn't play like their season depended on this match. Because it doesn't. For the Union though, it does. United will grieve momentarily over the loss of a chance to claim another trophy, but then they'll look back at the standings and see themselves in first place in the Eastern Conference. This team is better than it played tonight.
It wasn't a depressing loss. It wasn't a sign of things to come in league play. Instead, it was a bit of a warning. After the match, Ben Olsen called it a reminder that "we're not as good as we think we are." He also said that the team has been asking for this loss - leaving their opponents with chances that United has been lucky to see go unrealized. If the players can take this loss as motivation to do better, then it might even be worth it.
The two teams played a very even first half here in Boyds, MD. Both sides had some good chances, but only a few shots on goal. That changed though in the final minute of the half. The Union claimed the first goal of the night on a shot from Brian Carroll that deflected off a United player and into the net, leaving Bill Hamid with little chance for a save. But D.C. would respond just moments later as Andy Najar crossed from the right wing midway up the attacking half to Nick DeLeon who was at the endline just past the far post. DeLeon headed the ball back into the middle and Josh Wolff pounded it into the net.
The second half was less entertaining, with neither team generating many opportunities for long periods of time. United had enjoyed some extended stretches of possession both in the first half and early in the second, with Branko Boskovic and Perry Kitchen being the main contributors. But as Boskovic started to disappear later in the second half, the Union took over. United was fortunate to hang on in regulation.
But as the clock at the SoccerPlex was reset to 0:00, the Union quickly took advantage of a tired D.C. defense. Their goal came from an unexpected source. Hoppenot has exactly 26 minutes of MLS action in his two-year career with the Union, but you never would have known it by his performance tonight. The 2011 Supplemental Draft pick for the Union was very active, and could have added two more goals besides his game-winner, having a chance stolen by a diving Hamid at the very end of regulation, and then hitting the crossbar later in extra time.
The overtime session had some more excitement later in the second period, but not for any positive reason. Following a free kick chance, Brandon McDonald knocked three Union players to the ground and was sent off with a red card, leading to a bit of a brawl, just as you'd come to expect in this tournament in this location. Carlos Valdes was sent off as well, leading Olsen to criticize the officiating for not taking control earlier in the match. "Every Open Cup game just turns into an absolute circus," he said. But he stressed to the press that in no way were we to interpret his comments as blaming the officiating for the loss. "This is on me, and its on the players," he said.
Philadelphia deserved the win tonight, and with the New York Red Bulls also falling to the Harrisburg City Islanders, the Open Cup is guaranteed to see at least one lower-division team in the semifinals (either Philly or Harrisburg, get it?). Listen, I don't mean that though. I honestly have no idea why they've been performing so poorly in MLS action, because that was a pretty good team that beat United. Freddy Adu continued his good run of form, and their victory sent a message to the league that the Union won't be stepped on anymore. It also sent a message to United that there's still plenty of work to do.