We're rebranding our regular "The Last Word" post this week to just "TLW" so that we can write about something other than this weekend's poor but meaningless 4-1 loss against Toronto FC. While the youthful lineup Ben Olsen trotted out brought a new grouping of players to the pitch, the match's narrative combined two storylines we've seen previously this year (D.C. United took the lead, but then was blown out). If you missed the match, you can check out Jason's recap here and Ben's assessment of the unique broadcast here.
Rather than writing the last word about the game in Toronto, TLW this week is going to look forward and write about the US Open Cup final which will occur in less than 72 hours against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium. It's D.C. United's biggest game of the year, so let's take a look at what the hometown team needs to do to win the final of our nation's open championship.
Of all the reasons this season has been so disappointing for D.C. United fans (and there are many), perhaps the biggest one is that United entered the season with such high expectations. If you are a fan of Toronto or Chivas USA right now, sure you are sick and tired of the losing. But, you also aren't surprised with where your team is sitting since it's almost identical to where you sat last season. For D.C. United fans, however, last season's unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals not only raised the bar on expectations for this season, especially considering the continuity coming back on the roster and in the coach's box, but it also left us with the memory of this team's potential and what they proved they could do individually and collectively on the field.
Why we haven't seen that level of performance this year has been, and will be, an ongoing topic of discussion here on the site. But, what are those qualities from last year and from the few bright spots this year that could help us defeat RSL on Tuesday night if they re-emerged?
Here are the Top 5 ways D.C. United can win the US Open Cup if they only do what they've done in the past. We'll count down the list from #5 to #1 to generate a little manufactured drama:
5. Old guys need to play like wily veterans and youngsters need to play without fear (again). There are sayings we routinely hear in sports anytime a certain set of events occur. One of those has to do with the value of veteran players when they join otherwise youthful teams. Old guys bring experience and knowledge, they mentor younger players, and they serve as coaches on the field. D.C. United has two older players who fall into this category, Lewis Neal (age 32) and John Thorrington (33). They aren't the oldest players on the team, but they are the two that exude the most "veteranness". Both have shown the quality and leadership they're capable of during their time with D.C. United, and both bring a calming influence to the field. Let's see more of all that on Tuesday.
Another sports axiom is that young players in big games don't know enough to be scared or stressed. I have no idea if that is true, but D.C. United will run out a legion of young players on Tuesday night (although not as young and not as many as at Toronto this past Saturday). Although the results haven't followed on the field, the second half of the season (when so many young players joined this already young team) has looked better on the field than the first half. It's time for these young players to seize the moment and play with the exuberance, passion, and creativity that young players bring in spades, and that we've seen from Luis Silva, Jared Jeffrey, Conor Doyle, and Collin Martin at times this season. A Cup final can define a career, and this is their moment. Obligatory dead guy quote that wily veterans should be reminding the youngsters of right now: Carpe Diem!
4. Ben Olsen's substitutes need to impact the result (again). Remember last year's season-ending run (5-0-2 over the last seven matches of the season) that saw D.C. United vault into second place in the Eastern Conference? During that run and into the playoffs, Olsen had an almost clairvoyant ability to sub on players at the right moment to seal the result. Here are the substitutes that directly affected match results late last season:
- Branko Boskovic scored the game winner against Chivas USA on Sep. 23, 2012 (1-0)
- Hamdi Salihi scored the late winner against Toronto after his fellow substitute Maicon Santos' shot on Oct. 6, 2012 (1-0)
- LEWIS NEAL scored D.C. United's most memorable goal in five years, assisted by fellow substitutes Branko Boskovic and Hamdi Salihi, to get the stoppage-time win against the Columbus Crew on Oct. 20, 2012 (3-2)
- Joe Willis came off the bench after Bill Hamid's red card to save Kenny Cooper's penalty against the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Nov. 8, 2012 (1-0)
We haven't seen Olsen's substitutes impact match results to the same degree this year, although notable exceptions are Kyle Porter's late goal to get the draw against the LA Galaxy on Sep. 14, and the performance of Conor Doyle and Collin Martin in the win over the Montreal Impact on Aug. 3.
We'll leave it up to Ben Olsen to choose who the subs will be on Tuesday night in The Cup Final, but whoever they are, let's make them count.
3. D.C. United's designated player needs to play like it (again). With the departure of young DP Rafael earlier this season, captain Dwayne De Rosario found himself alone as the team's only DP. We've spent a fair amount of time debating what DeRo's role should be on United going forward, but there is no doubt he can still produce moments of magic even if he isn't consistently the same player who won the MLS Most Valuable Player Award just two seasons ago. This MLS all-time great has put in his best performances this season in the US Open Cup, and we need to see that again on Tuesday night. He doesn't have to do it all himself (which we've seen him unsuccessfully attempt to do this year in the league), but he does at least need to make those around him better while looking for the key moments where his individual talent and vision can change the game.
2. Players with aspirations to make the US Men's National Team need to play like it (again). D.C. United is fortunate to have at least four American players who have aspirations to play for the USMNT. Bill Hamid continues to be actively in the USMNT player pool even though he likely won't go to the World Cup this cycle (see #1 below for more on Hamid). Chris Pontius has been just on the outside of that player pool for a while now. Perhaps only Stuart Holden has had injuries more undermine his USMNT hopes in recent years. Pontius turned down an invite to the January USMNT camp earlier this year to focus on rehab and the upcoming D.C. United season. He even was added to the overall USMNT Gold Cup player pool this past summer, although he wasn't called up for the tournament. When he's healthy and on form, he's good enough to demand a serious look by the national squad.
Perry Kitchen is a guy we could one day see inherit the Kyle Beckerman role on the USMNT. Kitchen has played for the youth national teams and the Olympic team, and with continued development his time will come on the full national team as well. Nick DeLeon also could get a look at some point down the road. He's turned down Trinidad and Tobago's national team to keep his focus on a possible USMNT call up in the future. Certainly there's no guarantee for him, but when in form, we've seen flashes from DeLeon that show he could be in the national player pool one day.
All of these players, and Luis Silva, are ranked in the top 100 American players by American Soccer Now. Argue with the rankings all you like, but there is talent on this D.C. United squad. Let's play like it on Tuesday night and force Jurgen Klinsmann to take notice!
1. Bill Hamid needs to play out of his mind (again). In a country that consistently produces as much talent at goalkeeper as almost any in the world, Bill Hamid hovers near the top 5 American keepers both in the eyes of Jurgen Klinsmann and the US Men's National Team staff, as well as in unofficial rankings. We've seen him stand on his head multiple times in his D.C. United career, and he has singlehandedly stolen points on the road for D.C. United in the past (witness D.C. United's draw in their first trip to New Jersey early in the 2013 season). When he's in the zone, there is no better shot stopper in MLS, and few better anywhere that can match his anticipation and athleticism. For a man with the talent to one day take over the starting duties for the USMNT and to play big-time soccer in Europe, this is an opportunity to show what he can do in a championship match.
Despite having beaten RSL early in the season, D.C. United will enter the US Open Cup Final as a massive underdog. Almost nothing says we should expect them to pull the upset, but the potential is there. If these players and coaches perform as well as they have in the past, if they reawaken the ghosts of last fall, and if they play for the shield, D.C. United could add another trophy to its crowded trophy case. And this one may just be the most improbable of them all.
What have you seen in the past from this team that gives you hope D.C. United can win the US Open Cup? Is this Cup final about D.C. United's form or about RSL's? Can D.C. United win on Tuesday?
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