Why do we go to D.C. United games? Is it for the atmosphere, the action? Perhaps we go because just like any other sporting event, you’re never going to know what you’ll witness. Heck, Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta gave us an illustration of that six weeks ago. And five years ago this week, we got an even better reflection of this when D.C. played Real Salt Lake in the 100th US Open Cup final.
D.C. United were bad during the 2013 MLS campaign. How bad you ask? D.C.’s final league win came on August 3 against the Montreal Impact. They closed the season out on a 10 game winless streak. They won 3 games in 34, scoring 22 goals in that time. In their four outings against 2013’s other terrible teams (Toronto FC and Chivas USA) they lost three times and couldn’t even manage one victory.
But by god they were magic in the Open Cup weren’t they? After 2018 Open Cup winner Joe Willis vanquished Andrew Dykstra in penalty kicks when 9-man D.C. beat their USL affiliate Richmond Kickers, they dispatched the New England Revolution and Philadelphia Union by 3-1 scores, then went on the road to shut out the Chicago Fire (whose broadcast team are still probably bitching about stoppage time), and finally went up to Utah.
We’ll get to that in due time. First, some words about the squad. We’ll never know (and nobody will say) what the motivations behind some of the player acquisitions were, but D.C. United was bad, fam. For starters, Dave Kasper couldn’t have whiffed harder on a group of signings if he tried. He started by raiding Chivas USA in getting James Riley and Casey Townsend for draft picks. Next, he acquired MLS veterans through MLS roster mechanisms, in John Thorrington (re-entry draft) and Carlos Ruiz (allocation). Kyle Porter went from FC Edmonton to trial to a deal. Michael Seaton was a homegrown signing, Taylor Kemp was selected in the draft. And Rafael Gladiador, Marcos Sanchez and Syamsir Alam were acquired on loan. Of that last trio, two left by the end of June and the third (Rafael, who was a young DP) played 7 games, scored 1 goal (admittedly, it was a pretty nice one) and left at the end of the year.
So you’re banking on international players to get acclimated to the league, they don’t pan out, and you’re left with the core. And the core was that perfect combination of aging and falling off (ed: this was perfect but for wrong reasons). Dwayne De Rosario had been willing performances from his teammates when he came over in a trade from the New York Red Bulls in 2011 and continued to score in 2012, albeit not at the torrid place of the previous year. And in 2013, he just was at the point where he wasn’t DeRo anymore. He was trying to take on players and couldn’t do it anymore. He went from 11 goals with DC in 2011 to 7 in 2012 and scored 3 in 2013. Not what you want from a guy turning 35 during the year either. The De Ro in waiting, acquired in midseason of 2013 was Luis Silva and sure, he had 11 goals in 2014, but his 3 in 13 games with D.C. was not awe-inspiring.
Then there was the defense. Dejan Jakovic and Brandon McDonald looked...not abominable on paper, particularly after 2012, but that year’s right back Robbie Russell retired to focus on medical school (good on him, by the way). Perhaps he knew what was to come? McDonald was yanked at halftime of a 3-0 loss to the Columbus Crew in April, and his time in MLS more or less ended right then for reasons that have never been explained publicly. McDonald made 3 more appearances scattered over the next few months before being traded, oddly enough, to RSL in July.
Elsewhere, D.C. United’s left back was a journeyman USL player (Daniel Woolard) and Bill Hamid basically had to serve as Goldberg from the Mighty Ducks every night for 8 months. Woolard, at 29 years old, ended up calling it a career after the 2013 season. It was that kind of year.
It can’t be stressed enough how many of these guys were simply struggling to make it at an MLS level (or in Alam’s case, even here to begin with, though we maybe have a little idea about that), and were shuttled out after 2013. Let’s go down the list:
- Syamsir Alam: Departed June 30, 2013. Bumping around Indonesian clubs, most likely?
- Marcos Sanchez: Departed May 30, 2013. Loaned out to several Venezuelan league sides before returning to Tauro FC in Panama.
- Rafael Gladiador: Departed June 26, 2013. Returned to Brazil (currently in Serie C) after a stint in China.
- Casey Townsend: Option declined at the end of 2013. Played with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL before moving to the USL, playing with several clubs.
- Carlos Ruiz: Option declined at the end of 2013. Played for Guatemalan clubs and received national team caps, was signed by FC Dallas in 2016 for the remainder of the season.
- Dennis Iapichino: Acquired August 2013 on waivers, not re-signed. Plays with Siena in Italian Serie C.
- Alain Rochat: Acquired June 2013 from the Vancouver Whitecaps via trade, transferred to Young Boys in Switzerland before the summer was over. Announced his retirement in 2018.
- Dejan Jakovic: Transferred to Japan at the end of 2013, returned to the US to play with the New York Cosmos, currently playing with LAFC.
- John Thorrington: Retired at end of 2013 season.
- Brandon McDonald: Part of a backline that gave up 3 goals to the Columbus Crew in an April loss. After that...never saw much playing time, was traded to Real Salt Lake and appeared in 3 games before leaving to play internationally in Sweden, Thailand, Guam and most recently Malaysia. He has also played for Guam’s national team.
- Marcelo Saragosa: Option declined at the end of 2013, did not play again until the Tampa Bay Rowdies called in 2015. Played one year and will return to playing as part of the Austin Bold roster for 2019(!)
- Dwayne De Rosario: Option declined at the end of 2013. Returned to play for Toronto FC in 2014 before retiring early in the 2015 season.
- Daniel Woolard: Released at the end of 2013, didn’t play with any other team, now currently a realtor.
- Lionard Pajoy: Option declined at the end of 2013, returned to play in Columbia and Peru, late of Alianza Lima.
- Sainey Nyassi: Acquired midseason on waivers via New England, not re-signed. Last seen with FC Edmonton in 2017.
- James Riley: Released at the end of 2013, trialed (and signed) with the LA Galaxy in 2014. Now doing broadcast analysis of USL games for Seattle Sounders (next to Sounder at Heart’s own Dave Clark).
A pretty daunting list. Of the list above, 13 were with D.C. at the beginning of the year, and 5 were in the 18 for the final. And RSL was cruising along at that time, lest anyone forget. Leading goalscorers Alvaro Saborio (12 goals) and Javier Morales (8) nearly matched all of D.C.’s production as a TEAM (22). Morales was 4th in MLS in assists (10), Nick Rimando had a down year by his lofty standards with “only” 9 clean sheets. They had an outside chance at a treble, missing out on the Supporters’ Shield by three points, and were one goal from leading MLS in scoring.
So why would someone go on a road trip to a Tuesday game in Utah in October with the season shot? I mean, why wouldn’t you? In a year with a lot of doom and gloom, I went for the sake of seeing if the team could pull it off and to check Rio Tinto off the list.
Did I think they could do it? Probably not. And I think most of the 50 or so traveling D.C. fans who were there thought the same thing. And so while we were wishing everyone luck and we hoped that our boys would give them some heck, I experienced a strange sense of fatalism among the RSL folks, who seemed to expect that this was going to end badly.
In talking to some fine people at Epic Brewing, they were convinced of several things in no order:
- Kreis would leave at the end of the year and that Lagerwey would leave at the end of 2014.
- That they would miss out on MLS Cup and were keeping their hopes in check for the Open Cup.
- That in the moment 20-year-old wunderkind Luis Gil would leave for Mexico without being transferred.
I thought they were crazy, that they would be nuts to think such a thing. I got to the tailgate that one of their supporters’ groups was having, and heard more of the same. There was a guy whose name I don’t remember anymore, who traveled in a car with his friends in a 3-hour drive from Idaho, who was convinced that D.C. would win.
When you get in the stadium, I’m here to tell you all the kickass pictures that you see people take there are correct. Views of the mountains for miles, incredible sunsets, fans piling into the RioT. Once we got inside, minority owner of the club Will Chang could be seen sitting in the upper level, playing with his phone nervously, as you do before a game. I didn’t chat with him much, but he seemed more angsty than I was. Largely because there was no way in hell we were winning, I had to wonder: what could HE be thinking of?
As for the game itself, you probably remember it pretty well. Lewis Neal hits a worm burner along the ground following a failed clearance. Hamid was keeping everything out that he could, including a Saborio shot from close range, Rimando should have gone off for clearing out Conor Doyle on a breakaway, 3-time Open Cup winner Riley deflects Sabo’s header onto the crossbar and Hamid’s arms.
Then you have all the stuff afterward:
Going to a road game with a trophy on the line, where you have no chance in hell to win, and then to have it actually happen in front of your eyes? Well it’s pretty damn great. I slapped backs with people in my section and yelled myself hoarse, and then we moved from the upper level to the lower for the trophy raise and a meet the team that remains a fond memory:
My friends and I got into a car to meet the bus back at the hotel because well, they earned it and we wanted to let them know:
There seemed to be a sense of certainty among people in the hours and weeks afterwards of the joy and the fact that they wouldn’t have this kind of accomplishment again. Thorrington did a slip and slide in the DC locker room, the team had a celebration of their own after we left them alone. Of those on the 2013 D.C. United roster, Riley (4 games with the LA Galaxy in 2014) and Seaton (0 games played with the Portland Timbers in 2015) are the only ones who have won MLS Cups since then.
For RSL? Well, things happened the way their fans thought they would. They missed the Shield, lost in the USOC final, lost in the MLS Cup Final on penalty kicks to Sporting Kansas City. Kreis left for New York City FC and Orlando City. More jobs will come to him for sure, but his visibility among American coaches has never really recovered since that cool fall night in Utah.
As a side note, you can’t not look at what Ben Olsen did with that 2013 squad in that 9-minute video as coaching smarts. He knew the pressure was on Real Salt Lake, and he and Josh Wolff coached that squad to a tee that night. Watch the post-game talk he gave them before everyone got doused in Bud Light. A lot of mutual belief from a bunch of different parties was involved, and they pulled it off, he kept the locker room together when it very well could (and should) have blown up long before October.
Olsen says in the Washington Post piece above that he “...ranks it as high as any cup I’ve won in my entire life.” Longtime fans of the team (who are friends of mine) consider that to be perhaps the most joy he experienced in awhile. Many of those same fans consider their presence at that game to be among the best games they’ve experienced as a supporter, and these include MLS Cup or other Open Cup wins. Personally speaking it was my second USOC (the first being at RFK against the Charleston Battery in 2008) and it sure kicked the hell out of that. The odds of them winning were long, the team was worse than the record showed if that was possible, yet it has a place in the heart of any D.C. United fan who saw it.
We go to games to see what happens, and on October 1, 2013, all of us saw something we won’t see again for a very very long time.