Last night was fun. Obviously our faithful readers already know that D.C. United built on their recent uptick in form to see off the New England Revolution 3-1 at the Soccerplex last night (didn't see it? The match video is on YouTube). The rumored swampy weather and potential thunderstorms ended up turning into a comfortable - well, mid-Atlantic summer comfortable, anyway - night, and United once again delivered the goods going forward at the Soccerplex. Other than the Beltway traffic jam that caused me to miss the first couple of minutes, fun was had by all...well, all except the one Revs fan in a Darrius Barnes jersey that I saw, but screw that guy.
The rest of the Open Cup quarterfinal fixtures were also played last night, with the last remaining NASL and USL sides going on the road to face MLS opposition. The slate of games was topped by two of MLS's strongest teams going head-to-head on a sweltering night down in Texas. So, how did the quarters play out?
The Cinderella story many people wanted looked in trouble almost straight from the kickoff. Orlando City central midfielder James O'Connor went down with what looked like a potentially serious injury within the first minute of the game, forcing the Lions to bring in one of their many Sporting Kansas City loanees (in this case, rookie Christian Duke). With the final score in mind, a full-strength Chicago side obviously took advantage.
Soon thereafter, the Fire were in front. Chris Rolfe won't score many easier goals than this 6th minute goal, nodding in while completely unmarked after being picked out by Dilly Duka (who himself had plenty of room to cross). However, Orlando would pull level through former Colorado/New England defender Rob Valentino, whose hard near-post run on a short corner was rewarded with a good low cross from midfielder Kevin Molino in the 51st minute.
Orlando had piled on the pressure to start the second half, and very nearly went up 2-1 just moments later. Gonzalo Segares followed a shoddy clearance with some awful positional play, allowing Dom Dwyer a tremendous look at goal. Unfortunately for the USL-Pro record goalscorer, Sean Johnson produced a huge save to keep the scores level. A few minutes later, Orlando hit the post after Adama Mbengue shot - created after great work by, wait for it, Long Tan - was tipped onto the woodwork by Johnson. Johnson also saved Tan's follow-up (which would have been offside anyway). Yet another Orlando upset win was starting to look distinctly possible.
Or not. Only 13 minutes after the scores were leveled, Chicago was up 3-1. Within a minute of Mbengue's shot hitting the post, Patrick Nyarko scored a 59th minute goal all on his own. Nyarko intercepted goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo's goal kick, ran into space, faked past the only defender who ever tried to confront him, and then fired a low shot across goal and in. I guess sometimes it's just that easy.
It got worse in the 64th, as Rolfe grabbed his second. Most of the hard work was done by Jeff Larentowicz, who rode two different tackles before slotting Rolfe in behind. Rolfe, to his credit, made a run into a gap left by one of the players who tried to tackle Larentowicz, and also produced a cheeky finish in dinking the ball over a sliding Gallardo.
Following a red card after a clear-cut DOGSO foul prevented Larentowicz from breaking in alone to KC loanee Yann Songo'o in the 71st, Chicago decided to pile on. Mike Magee had to score his obligatory goal in the 82nd minute, after being set up by a sensational cross-field pass by Maicon Santos.
Mbengue would join Songo'o in the Lions locker room early after receiving a red card of his own in the 85th minute with a challenge that was either horribly clumsy or outright malicious, and Lindpere would eventually get the goal he was denied earlier in stoppage time following a long ball from Duka.
As announcer Brendan Hannan noted in the game feed, United & Chicago both have 9 semifinal appearances, tied for the most in MLS history. In other words, August 7th will be a battle between the two MLS clubs that have been taking the Open Cup seriously for the longest period of time.
Hot Time In Old Town quoted a chant from Fire fans: "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."
On paper, this looked like the match of the round. The other fixtures all had either a minor league team playing on the road or the 19th place team in MLS taking on the side in 13th. By contrast, Dallas hosting Portland meant a team that was very recently atop the Supporters Shield table would host the team that, just this past weekend, took over in the race for that piece of hardware. In 33 MLS games this season, FCD and the Timbers have combined to lose just four games.
Thankfully, the game delivered on that promise. With no game on the weekend, the Timbers selected their best available squad (only the injured Michael Harrington was left out), while Dallas started eight first-choice players, and the three back-ups were either experienced (Je-Vaughn Watson, Chris Seitz) or highly touted youngsters (Walker Zimmerman). In other words, both teams were going for it.
The choice of Watson - over potential Newcomer of the Year Michel - turned out to be a good one for Schellas Hyndman, as the Jamaican put the home team ahead in the 15th minute. Jackson and Blas Perez were involved, with the Panamanian setting up a first-time shot from outside the box for Watson, who generally isn't known for scoring that kind of goal.
Unfortunately for Dallas the wheels more or less came off midway through the second half. First, Darlington Nagbe scored a jaw-dropping solo goal in the 61st minute, picking the ball up 30 yards from goal and dancing past three Hoops defenders before nutmegging Chris Seitz from an acute angle. If someone compiles a 2013 USOC highlight reel, this goal is a guarantee to be on there.
As if that weren't enough, Nagbe would follow it up just two minutes later with a through ball from inside Portland's half and wide on the left that tore the Dallas defense wide open. Diego Valeri surged up the middle with no one between him and goal, and Seitz would once again be nutmegged as Portland quickly turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead.
Conceding via lovely pieces of skill is one thing; you can't do much about it when someone does something great. On the other end of the spectrum are goals like Portland's third, in the 72nd minute. Under nothing more than token pressure from Frederic Piquionne, Zimmerman got flustered before turning to play a woefully under-hit backpass. Piquionne sprinted past him to sidefoot with ease past Seitz, who most likely only had to glare at Zimmerman to express his thoughts afterward.
Still, Dallas didn't go down without a fight. Perez pulled a goal back in the 86th minute after Donovan Ricketts scuffed an attempted punch into his path, leaving nothing more complicated than a header from the doorstep into an empty net.
The Hoops then came within inches of forcing overtime in the dying moments. A sequence sparked by substitute Ramon Nunez eventually saw David Ferreira's shot from the top of the box get through a crowd and beat a flat-footed Ricketts cleanly only to thump the foot of the post. Will Johnson's clearance from that rebound was literally the game's final kick.
Mostly due to the fact that they have no current ambitions of promoting America-style (i.e. having a stadium, proper financial backing, and being in a desired geographic location), the NASL Railhawks got nowhere near as much pub as a Cinderella as did Orlando City. And fair enough, Orlando's push for MLS status is always going to get more attention among MLS fans than merely being the top team in the NASL. Still, the hype gap seems a bit too large for me, given that these Railhawks had knocked the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA out to get this quarterfinal match against RSL.
In any case, RSL started almost the exact same team that won on the weekend in league play, and when that one second choice player stepping in is two-time MLS Cup winner Josh Saunders, it's fair to say Jason Kreis was playing to win.
Intriguingly, it was actually Carolina that fielded the weakened team. The Railhawks can clinch the NASL spring season title - the NASL uses a split season akin to what we see in Mexico and all of Central America - with a win Saturday night over the Atlanta Silverbacks, who are the only team that can realistically catch them. It's essentially a cup final, so you can kind of see where coach Colin Clarke is coming from.
Still, the decision meant more or less punting at Rio Tinto Stadium, and RSL is already good enough as it is. RSL took charge early but needed 35 minutes to find a goal from, of all people, Tony Beltran (who now has two career goals, both in Open Cup play). Alvaro Saborio teed up the Gold Cup-bound right back for a 22 yard shot after RSL had tried to drive deep into the box via Javier Morales.
The fullbacks would continue to come up big, as left back Chris Wingert made it 2-0 after 50 minutes. Like Beltran, the goal came on a shot from outside the box, as RSL moved from right to left in possession before Kyle Beckerman squared the ball for Wingert, who was not closed down by a trio of Carolina defenders.
After creating a chance for Joao Plata with a backheel, Saborio capped off a fine performance with an 86th minute goal. It was a classic example of what happens to tired teams who are behind: Olmes Garcia had an eternity to size up a chip from the endline on the left, and Saborio blew past his marker to nod home in clinical fashion.
Carolina's contingent of ex-United players didn't make much impact. Julius James and Nick Addlery didn't make the trip at all, while Austin da Luz only played the final 10 minutes off the bench. Local product Jordan Graye did go the full 90 at right back, at least.
Last night's results leave us with a pair of enticing semifinals that won't be played until August 7th (thanks, Gold Cup):
The East coast half of the bracket features two teams with excellent Open Cup histories who are starting to find some form after starting 2013 in poor fashion, while the West coast side involves the top two teams in MLS right now, both having gone further in the Open Cup than they ever have before.