Normally D.C. United's US Open Cup trips to lower-level opposition carry with them a bit of mystery. After all, this region of the country is mostly filled with USL clubs, and the USL's schedule historically includes things like playing Friday and Sunday to cut down on travel costs. However, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds have played on their last three games on the last three Saturdays on the calendar. While they do have a league match on this coming weekend, it's at home against FC Montreal, the bottom team in the entire league. In other words, we'll be seeing their best eleven.
Fortunately - well, fortunately for soccer bloggers - head coach Mark Steffens is not much of a tinkerer. Looking over their past five games it's pretty straightforward in figuring out who they're going to start tonight. Since the Riverhounds have yet to host an MLS team in a competitive match at 2 year old Highmark Stadium, it would make perfect sense for them to play their best available side.
Goalkeeper Ryan Hulings is only 24 and played D3 soccer in college at Baldwin Wallace University, but he's managed to get starts over Calle Brown, who started for the Virginia Cavaliers on their run to last year's D1 national championship. 30 year old Jamaican Ryan Thompson (who has played in the Europa League as well as the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions League) is the normal starter, but injured his back last month and hasn't regained his place yet.
Across the back Anthony Arena is the only player with MLS experience, having spent two seasons with the Houston Dynamo (though the majority of 2014, he was on loan with Pittsburgh). However, left back Tyler Pasher - a former Canada under-20 player - played a friendly for Toronto while still in the TFC academy. Right back Mike Green was a US under-20 in college as a winger but has been converted to fullback since becoming a pro. Arena and center back partner Willie Hunt are composed defenders, but at 5'11" and 5'10" respectively they are a very undersized duo. United isn't really built to take advantage of this sort of thing in the run of play, but someone like Conor Doyle will seem like a towering, burly target man in these circumstances.
Both defensive midfielders have MLS experience, though it didn't go all that well. Stephen Okai was drafted in 2013 by the Philadelphia Union in the 2nd round as a near-unknown out of the NAIA, and John Hackworth infamously described him as MLS ready only to release him before the end of the preseason. Since then, the Ghanaian has been a regular for two different USL clubs as a holding midfielder and is the more conservative central midfielder for Pittsburgh.
Irishman Danny Earls was an Aston Villa academy product but, having not been offered a contract, ended up signing with the Rochester Rhinos in 2008. Earls has faced United before in the Open Cup, going out in the 2009 semifinal at the Soccerplex. That offseason, Earls made the jump to MLS after signing with the Colorado Rapids. In those days, he was seen as a left midfielder/left back, but sometime between returning to Rochester in 2012 and today he has remade himself as a tempo-setting defensive midfielder. Earls is also pretty good when taking set pieces, so United can't give fouls away cheaply with him on the field.
The attacking midfield trio is a bit flexible, as both wide men can play the central role while Lebo Moloto can play any of the three spots. Moloto was drafted by the Sounders during the 2013 supplemental rounds, but was cut during camp as he was going to finish school first. After a year playing back in his native South Africa, the 22 year old signed with the Riverhounds. His role in this attack is more about his ability to create assists than to pursue goalscoring chances, but he was a regular goalscorer playing PDL soccer while playing NAIA soccer in college.
Wingers Kevin Kerr and Rob Vincent are Pittsburgh's top two scorers this season, with 14 of their 27 league goals. Kerr - a Scot born and raised in Germany - played in the 2.Bundesliga for 2 seasons before moving to the Dutch 2nd division. The former Scotland under-21 eventually ended up in Pittsburgh, where he's coming into his own this season. His 5 league goals this season match his total for the previous two full seasons with the Riverhounds. He likes to make diagonal runs and seems to be the most likely player to support lone striker Miroslav Cabrilo, a 23 year old Canadian. Cabrilo seems like more of a set-up forward than a true #9; his first look is more to set up the attacking midfield trio to run into the attack than to go to goal himself.
The big threat is Vincent, who has 9 USL goals and 2 more in the Open Cup (including the 91st minute long-range game-winner that knocked off the Tampa Bay Rowdies and secured this game with United). The Englishman is having a breakout season, as his previous USL stat lines were two straight seasons with 3 goals and an assist. Vincent is a multi-faceted threat, but much of what he does is built around driving runs through the midfield. If United leaves gaps to run through, he's going to barrel through them. Vincent also has a flair for the dramatic: To go with the aforementioned USOC goal, he also scored in stoppage time to level their recent, absurd game with the Harrisburg City Islanders at 5-5 (they went on to grab a sixth even later in stoppage time).
Perhaps as a consequence of that scoreline, Pittsburgh has focused on improving their defending recently. Whatever they're doing, it's been working of late. Since losing back-to-back road games in early May, the Riverhounds have gone 5W-2D-0L across all competitions. On the plus side, United can ring up the Richmond Kickers for first-hand information, as one win and one draw in that run came against the Black-and-Red's USL affiliate. In particular, it's worth noting that the Kickers went to Highmark and walked off with a draw.
Altogether, this is a trickier opponent to face playing away than most other MLS teams ended up drawing in this round. The Riverhounds have just one home loss, and it came back on April 4th. They have not been shut out by anyone they've played this season, though their goals against figure - 23 from 12 games - is clearly a weakness. United is going to have to show their normal attention to detail defensively and compress the space in their half very effectively. Pittsburgh isn't as possession-hungry as many MLS teams playing five-man midfields are, but they can keep the ball and are tactically sound as a group. This is still a game Ben Olsen's side should be winning, but they're going to have to work for it.