The US Open Cup is an odd creature, even within the American soccer community. Some fans, like myself, love it: It's our answer to March Madness, even if it's not on TV and there is no bracket pool to enter at work. For other fans, it's a waste of time: Random games against teams you've never heard of, and plenty of MLS teams will send out reserve league lineups. For more casual fans, "US Open Cup" might not actually mean anything at all.
D.C. United is one of the teams with a long history of taking this tournament seriously, whether it be through using more starters or outbidding all comers to maintain a streak of home games in the Open Cup that stretches back to
the Eisenhower administration 2007. With two Open Cup titles (1996 and 2008), two more trips to the final (1997 and 2009) - not to mention the "We Win Trophies" campaign that made us such good friends with the Seattle Sounders - there is no reason to expect anything short of a real push from United to make it 13 trophies. The winner also gets a spot in the 2013-2014 CONCACAF Champions League, and since it only takes five wins to lift the Open Cup, this is theoretically the easiest path to continental competition.
That said, we're not going to be the only team with a proud Open Cup tradition on the field tonight. The Richmond Kickers of USL-Pro (technically the 3rd division, but the difference between USL-Pro and the alleged 2nd division NASL in terms of on-field play is virtually non-existent) were the final team to win the Open Cup before MLS started in 1996, and over the years they have an impressive 9W-3D-11L record against MLS clubs. Back in 2004, they knocked off a United team that would win MLS Cup only a few months later.
You don't have to go deep into the past to see how well the Kickers tend to do in this tournament. Just last season, they knocked off the Columbus Crew at Crew Stadium, and then beat Sporting Kansas City (starting Myers, Collin, Besler, Kamara, and Bunbury on the night) in KC, before losing a tight 2-1 semifinal match to the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park. Given that the Kickers have kept most of that team together and have head coach Leigh Cowlishaw back for a 12th consecutive season, overlooking Richmond here in the third round would be a huge mistake.
Last season the Kickers used a 4141 throughout their Cinderella run, and they also played more or less the same way in the one game I was able to watch a portion of (May 5th against the Dayton Dutch Lions), so it seems safe to assume that's what we'll see tonight:
Richmond goalkeeper (and assistant coach) Ronnie Pascale has been a Kicker for twelve years, and is a lock to start tonight. Ahead of him, the back four includes Yomby William - who had a cup of coffee with the Kansas City Wizards and got some CCL action with the Puerto Rico Islanders before joining the Kickers - and newcomer Shane Johnson, who is a towering presence at 6'3" and 195 lbs. Johnson is heavily left-footed, so United might be able to press him into a mistake by showing him onto his right foot.
Henry Kalungi, who has caps for Uganda's national team, was a center back last season but now appears to have moved to right back to make room for Johnson, who has played every minute of the season so far. Sascha Goerres, a German in his 8th season in Richmond, should slot in at left back. Goerres has a habit of making big plays in the Open Cup, so his overlapping runs and presence in the box on set pieces should be noted.
One significant question mark is at defensive midfield. Michael Callahan was a fixture there in last year's Open Cup run, but he has been in and out of the Kickers lineup this season. I would expect him to play, however, as it appears that his time on the bench results from wanting to add more attacking players in the midfield. It's doubtful that the Kickers will come out all guns blazing for this one.
On the right, Ryan Heins was a right back in last season's Open Cup, and is listed as a forward on the Kickers roster. He's a busy, physical player that leads Richmond in shots despite having to play wide more often than not. Centrally, it would be a surprise to see anyone but former New England Revolution utility man Luke Vercollone - filling more of a linking role - and former Columbus Crew attacker Stanley Nyazamba breaking forward as the more offensive player of the pair.
On the left, we could see another former Wizards draft pick in Edson Elcock, but Cowlishaw could also opt for Chris Agorsor on the left if he prefers burly target man Matthew Delicate (a perennial threat to be Richmond's top scorer) or former FC Dallas forward Jason Yeisley, who usually comes off the bench.
If Agorsor does play up top as he has been doing since signing with them following short stints with the Philadelphia Union and Real Salt Lake, look for him to use his speed to get in behind the defense. He's not the kind of speedster that runs himself out early either, if his recent two goals in stoppage time are any indicator.
Subs to look out for include midfielder/forward David Bulow, well-traveled (top divisions in Japan, Paraguay, Portugal, and France) Japanese attacking midfielder Nozomi Hiroyama, and Brazilian playmaker Gerson Dos Santos, who apparently impressed against the Aegean Hawks in last week's 4-0 win to get the Kickers to this stage of the Open Cup.
The majority of USOC games between MLS teams and minor-league clubs - particularly when the MLS team is at home - play out the same way: The lower-level team bunkers down, looking to clog the midfield and attack via speed on the wings and with over-the-top service from deep. For United, breaking down this bunker will be the key to the game.
The first step is to stay patient. For Richmond, this is as big a game as they'll play all year long, and they'll be charging all over the place in the early stages. The Black-and-Red need to keep the ball moving intelligently, allowing Richmond to run that high energy down a bit. That's not to say we shouldn't attack; just that you don't have to win by a first-round knockout (so to speak). United should have the smarter team on the field, and using that soccer IQ to force the Kickers to chase the ball for long periods will pay off.
United will also need to maintain a crisp pace to the game. The object is to be assertive and force Richmond to play an MLS-style game, rather than get dragged into a USL-style game. If things are choppy and neither team can string together more than a couple of passes, the game is going Richmond's way. This means United has to be very good about moving into good spots to make sure there's always an option for the next pass, and to make sure that our passes aren't just across the back four.
I mentioned set pieces earlier, and they'll be vital. If the back four is as predicted here, Goerres at 6'1" will be the shortest player in that group. Other taller regulars include Delicate (6'3") and Heins (6'2"). In other words, it's vital that United defend without fouling. Richmond will place a lot of importance set pieces, and while they might not have a particularly deadly server of the ball, their team size is enough that it doesn't necessarily matter.
This is a game United should win, even without Dwayne De Rosario and likely resting some starters after Saturday's draining 3-2 win over New England. However, the crucial work will come early; United must dictate the terms of the game and impose the higher speed of play that we've come to expect going forward. Richmond will come into the game genuinely believing they can win, and United has to make them start questioning that idea by dominating the game and creating chances.
Staying disciplined will also be important. The Kickers are not a dirty team, but they are physical and will be playing this game as hard as they possibly can. Not getting involved in the extracurricular stuff - in a competition that usually features more red cards than you normally see in MLS - will go a long way in helping United advance to the fourth round, where a home game against Philly or the Rochester Rhinos of USL-Pro awaits.