Stop me if you've heard this one before: D.C. United will face the Philadelphia Union in a US Open Cup match. Last year was the first time since 2010 that United didn't didn't face their nearest MLS neighbors eithe in America's oldest soccer competition or in the MLS qualifying process to enter the Cup. The last two meetings came in the round of 16, just like tonight's game. The only difference? For once, the Union won the hosting rights, so this game won't be at the Maryland Soccerplex or at RFK Stadium. The winning team today will advance to play either the New York Red Bulls or New York Cosmos, who square off tomorrow.
For United, the game comes at a pretty difficult time. The schedule is almost comically packed with games for the Black-and-Red, which has caused Ben Olsen - who in past seasons had mixed in starters for early USOC matches - to rotate in nearly an entire new eleven. It's a long-term plan to prevent injuries, even if it feels a lot like taking your medicine as a kid. United faces a cross-country trip to Seattle Friday - Friday, not Saturday...screw you MLS and TV sponsors - while Philly has the weekend off, so we're probably going to see some lesser-used Black-and-Red players taking on the Union's best team.
Key player: Luis Silva
Let's be honest with each other: Olsen is going to rotate in roughly the same group that started against Pittsburgh in the previous round. In fact, the "roughly" qualifier might not even be required if Olsen decides to rest both Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum. I don't really like it, and at least some of you will agree, but that's what's about to happen tonight.
As such, a player like Silva - good enough to start with the best eleven when he's in top form - will have to carry a lot of the weight in this one. In his 57 minutes against Toronto, we saw Silva putting in plenty of work on both sides of the ball; a repeat of that sort of performance is going to be required here. The Union have been bleeding goals all season long, but it's still going to take some creativity, skill, and movement for United to do what most other clubs have done to Philly this year. Let's not forget that the last time United went to PPL Park, a supposedly stronger eleven lost 1-0.
In Chicago, the 4141 formation this group will probably set up in looked like a group that could keep the ball, but they ended up not really trying to. Part of that was the simple fact that the Fire back four makes mistakes against direct play, but realistically a major issue was that Silva and Facundo Coria kept trying to send the rest of the front five in for breakaways and big chances too early. United was forcing it, in other words, and that won't really cut it against MLS competition.
Particularly if Markus Halsti starts deep, this trio needs to possess the ball and make the Union run without the ball. They don't have the option of resting players for this one, so tiring them out will pay off. Silva needs to lead that effort by focusing on connecting passes and looking for space rather than trying to turn every pass into a killer ball.
Key question: Is United mentally ready for a Philly side that needs to win this one?
A look at the standings - where the Union are 2 points out of the playoffs having played 2-5 more games than their competition - tells the story. The Union aren't in 2013 United territory as far as being down to the Cup as their only competition, but they're still a troubled team in need of some hope. You don't have supporter protests and your fans making snarky jokes as a coping mechanism unless you're in a bad spot.
It's not just that though. The Union's game preview is basically a lengthy complaint about how their trip to RFK went, and how they feel like they got a raw deal. That club is tired of being seen as small time compared to the rest of the Atlantic coast's teams, who either have history and better squads (United and the Revs) or get unearned attention because they play in or near the biggest city in the country (NYRB, NYCFC). And that doesn't even bring up the history of tense, physical games between these sides in this competition.
For all of those reasons, United's team today should prepare for a fired up Union team. Particularly in the opening stages, Philly is going to be flying around the field looking to win every tackle and get themselves on the front foot. This won't be like the trip to Pittsburgh, where the Riverhounds started tentative and then got tired after an hour. It won't be like the game against the Fire, either, as Chicago was missing key starters and never seemed that excited to be playing. This will be a difficult game against a desperate opponent; matching their hunger and energy will be critical.
Match date/time: Tuesday 6/30, 7:00pm Eastern
Venue: PPL Park (Chester, PA)
Online: US Soccer's Youtube page
Check back in two hours for our gamethread.