For D.C. United, the easiest path to a trophy, as well as a return to the CONCACAF Champions League, starts with tonight's US Open Cup fourth round match against the NASL's Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Five games lie between United and a fourteenth major trophy, but in knockout competition those games are almost never easy. Take last year, for example: Despite playing a Pittsburgh Riverhounds side whose star player at the time now only occasionally appears for United, the Black-and-Red were forced into extra time before they could dispatch the USL club.
Generally speaking, confirmation bias makes us believe that "cup magic" happens more often than it actually does. Over the past decade, MLS clubs win roughly 75% of their matches against NASL and USL sides. Last year, teams from the top flight advanced in 15 of 17 games against lower division teams, and during yesterday's set of games the only MLS team eliminated was knocked out by another MLS club (with Portland beating San Jose 2-0).
That doesn't change the fact that this round, where the big stars of MLS line up against the strivers and hopefuls from the lower leagues, is often thrilling. Last year, the NASL famously went 0 for 7 against clubs from the USL, essentially ruining their hopes of proving their (admittedly flimsy) claim that they're just a hair behind MLS as a league. That's not the case this time, with 7 NASL clubs hungry for a shot at stating their league's case.
United will be one of the teams dealing with that test, as the Strikers come to town (well, it's kind of a haul from "town" in this case, but that's not the point). Fort Lauderdale could start as many as three ex-United players as well as a trialist the Black-and-Red turned down and possibly as many as four players who were once in MLS. The Strikers will take the field on the back of their first loss in seven games, having fallen 2-1 at FC Edmonton this past Sunday.
That may be an advantage for United, as Fort Lauderdale will have had to bounce back from a game on turf as well as a long trip to the DMV. However, the Strikers are at least in a rhythm. United is coming off of two weeks without a game, and their last outing - a 2-0 home loss to the Seattle Sounders - was particularly discouraging. There has been some good news during the break: Chris Durkin has signed a homegrown contract (he'll start tonight), and Alhaji Kamara is apparently ready to play up to an hour.
For a team in search of some consistency, this is the start of a promising spell in the schedule. Starting tonight, United faces 3 games in 10 days. Tonight, they play an opponent from an inferior league. On the weekend, they're playing on the road against MLS's 19th place side. A week after that, they host a New England Revolution team they beat 3-0 in late April. It is high time United kicked into gear, and that starts tonight.
Location: Maryland Soccerplex (Boyds, MD)
Kick-off time: 7:30pm Eastern
Available TV: None
Our gamethread will be posted an hour before kickoff.