A win in the U.S. Open Cup final by D.C. United would provide a welcome lift and trophy to a Black and Red side that has only three wins in MLS. United’s opponent in the final, Real Salt Lake, is pushing for the playoffs, but it is still all about the Cup.
Real Salt Lake’s playoff position is not secure, but on Saturday on the road against Vancouver head coach Jason Kreis made ten changes to his lineup. Despite the adjustments to rest his starters for Tuesday’s final at Real Salt Lake, Kreis gamble paid off in a 1-0 road win at Vancouver.
In RSL’s win over the Whitecaps, Kreis’ starting eleven had only combined for 99 career starts and 20 of those came from Luis Gil. United head coach Ben Olsen employed a similar tactic to rest his starters when he sent out a starting lineup on Saturday in Toronto that had combined for only 79 starts.
“Obviously our whole season comes down to 90 minutes against Salt Lake so everyone is really focused, really tuned in and ready to go,” said Jared Jeffrey who made his 6th career start for United in the 4-1 loss to Toronto FC. “It’s been a trying year but we have an opportunity to salvage something on Tuesday and we’re really looking forward to it.”
United 4-1 loss to Toronto did not come as a surprise. At training last week the emphasis for United was to get ready for Real Salt Lake and not Toronto. Beyond the prestige of winning a trophy, and for United it would be its 13th piece of silverware from major competitions, there is the reward of a place in the potentially lucrative CONCACAF Champions League for the Cup winner.
“There is a belief with this group,” Olsen said. “It’s one game. It is a clean slate right now. We have three wins right now and all we need is four to get a championship and to hold that trophy. I hope they (team) understand that I think they do.”
One of United’s three wins this season was against Real Salt Lake, but it was an MLS lifetime ago. On a goal from Lionard Pajoy United defeated RSL 1-0 in the second week of the season. It helped United to a respectable start after losing the previous week on the road to Houston. There was a competitive scoreless draw with New York a week after the Salt Lake win, but it then all got a bit blurry.
Injuries in United’s attack including Dwayne De Rosario, Chris Pontius and Nick De Leon seemed to bring United to a halt. With United’s three best attacking players not at full fitness, the team needed players to replace their production. It didn’t happen and on defense United unraveled under the weight of mistakes that often forced to play from a goal down.
Recently with De Rosario, Pontius and De Leon all healthy, it has been better from United. That is not to say the positive results have flowed, but United’s play has been much more positive. A recent 2-2 draw at home with the LA Galaxy, when United twice had to rally from a one-goal deficit, served as an example of the Black and reds potential against an elite team in MLS.
“I like the squad we have,” said midfielder Perry Kitchen. “Recently we have played some good games, but just paid the price for some lapses in judgment. One play here or there can change it for us.If we can erase those lapses, we can compete. We have been good on the ball and have dictated the tempo in some tough games.”
With Saturday’s win over Vancouver, Real Salt Lake RSL now has 51 points, becoming the first MLS team in the post-shootout era to reach 50 points and 15 wins in four straight seasons. The victory over the Whitecaps, with a makeshift lineup, also stopped a two-game losing streak that including a home defeat to San Jose.
Both D.C. United and Real Salt Lake should have rested players for Tuesday. Real Salt Lake has won an MLS Cup, but never a U.S. Open Cup and is playing at home. D.C. United has won the Open Cup twice. In 1996 United’s Open Cup capped a dream season that included the first-ever MLS Cup. In 2008 United proved a losing record in MLS play was not a barrier to winning the Open Cup.
“The energy has been rolling in a positive way,” said Olsen “I think they (team) are chomping at the bit to prove a lot of people wrong. Let’s face it. It doesn’t get any bigger of an underdog right now, us versus Salt Lake in Salt Lake. Nobody is putting money on us. Nobody thinks we are going to go take this title. We seem to be a little better in that role. We have nothing to lose and we are going to go in a put in good fight and hopefully come out of t here with a lucky bounce or something.”