The US Open Cup is already three rounds in, but for D.C. United and the rest of MLS it starts this week. The Black-and-Red will face the Pittsburgh Riverhounds of the USL on the road at scenic Highmark Stadium. The Riverhounds eliminated the NASL's Tampa Bay Rowdies at that same venue in the previous round, joining in a clean sweep for what is supposedly American soccer's third tier over the "second division." Pittsburgh has also taken four points from two games against the Richmond Kickers, United's USL affiliate.
For United, the Open Cup should always be a focus. It requires just five wins to earn yourself a trophy, and the Cup winner also gets a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League. Aside from the culture of this club being very focused on winning trophies and lording it over everyone else, there are pragmatic reasons to aggressively pursue USOC glory. CCL qualifiers get a healthy amount of allocation money, which makes it easier to build a deeper and better squad next season. Compared to winning the Supporters Shield or the MLS Cup playoffs, the Cup is the simplest way to get that cash.
Key player: Luis Silva
Fabian Espindola and Chris Rolfe are almost certainly not starting this game, and we'll be lucky if both even travel for the game. Chris Pontius may or may not be over his hip injury, but even if he can play he's probably going to be preserved for Sunday's game against the Revolution. Jairo Arrieta may be able to start this game, but that's still iffy.
As such, it's highly likely that United's attack is going to lean heavily on the cleverness and skill of Silva, whose 2015 has not gone all that well. Wonderful stoppage time free kick game-winning goals aside, Silva has struggled to get himself on the field due to a mix of injury setbacks and bad timing. United needs him tonight, but Silva also needs to make some things happen tonight. With the DC attack looking a bit short of ideas in two straight games, the door is open for Silva to force his way back into a starting role. Fans, the team, and Silva himself should all be expecting a big game out of someone who scored 11 goals in 2014.
Key question: Can United overcome one of the toughest draws any MLS club got in this round of the Open Cup?
The Riverhounds are 5W-2D-0L in their last seven games between league and Cup, and they've lost just one home game all year. Most other MLS teams ended up winning a coin toss to get themselves a home game, leaving United in a group including NYCFC (at the New York Cosmos) and Columbus (at Richmond) as MLS sides who got a tricky game to start this year's USOC. Maybe it's not as tough as Portland drawing Seattle, but it's also not a game at the Soccerplex against a USL struggler.
United will need to be very intelligent, playing mistake-free soccer while creating some attacking chances despite fielding what will probably be a very unfamiliar front six. That's going to be tough against a Pittsburgh side that has been working for weeks on improving their defending. While their back four still seems vulnerable, getting into the attacking third might require some pretty smart on- and off-the-ball play.
Match date/time: Wednesday 6/17, 7:00pm Eastern
Venue: Highmark Stadium (Pittsburgh, PA)
Online: United's site will host a streaming feed here, while the Riverhounds site will probably make it very easy to find video on their front page. Maybe the best way is to just go straight to the Pittsburgh Youtube channel.
Check back in two hours for our gamethread.