October 16, 2019

D.C. United Analysis: Victorious Cup run should be new start, not an end

It will be a few days before the great feeling from D.C. United winning the 2013 U.S. Open Cup with a 1-0 victory at Real Salt Lake on Tuesday night wears off. Certainly, those in attendance at RFK Stadium Friday night when United returns to Major League Soccer play against the Chicago Fire will be in the mood to celebrate.

And rightfully so. For whatever struggles United has had in the league (and the world knows they have been many), putting together a five-match Cup run to win a trophy is never easy, no matter how good the team. Picked individually, maybe someone with a cynical mind would say a certain result along the way might have been a fluke. Such a person could even make that argument right at the very beginning, when United played at the Richmond Kickers – a club two levels below them and that helps develop young United players – and D.C. needed penalties to advance after 120 minutes of scoreless soccer.

Given United’s struggles to score goals in MLS play (20 in 30 games), one could have looked at either of United’s Open Cup wins over Philadelphia or New England (both MLS clubs), and said that the 3-1 scores were simple anomalies that couldn’t be repeated (until they were).

Surely then, it was only a handful of people who, given United hadn’t won away from home in the league all season to that point (and still haven’t), might have thought D.C. would go to Chicago in the Open Cup semifinals and be successful. Not without another penalty shootout or the Fire having three players sent off, or without somehow signing Jaime Moreno and Raul Diaz Arce to 1-day contracts.

Yet, United beat the Fire, too, shut them out even (2-0), and there they were Tuesday night in Sandy, Utah, playing for a trophy.

The mere thought of that had to drive fans of United’s closest rivals nuts. Even though the New York Red Bulls are in position to possibly win the Supporters’ Shield and maybe more this season, their last memory of United in an elimination match was Nick DeLeon scoring late at Red Bull Arena in Game 2 of the Eastern Semifinals last year to knock New York out – leaving them without a trophy for a 17th consecutive campaign. Now, in DC’s worst season, United have another trophy,  while New York’s trophy case serves as nothing more than a place to hold paper plates for office parties.

Philadelphia fans were probably still wondering how they lost to United all those months ago in the Cup, and in the Union’s short history, they’ve yet to play on such a stage as United did Tuesday night.

Los Angeles Galaxy fans must have thought this could be the season their club caught United’s once elusive total of 12 major trophies (L.A. has 11), only to see United capture Lucky #13. Not to mention the Galaxy failing to beat lowly United in their own league meeting this season, a 2-2 draw at RFK last month.

There was a time when United were the best supported and most hated MLS club, all at the same time. This happens when a team finds ways to win matches where trophies are on the line more often than not, and when a club continues to appear in those types of matches on a regular basis.

From 1996-1999 alone, the first four years of MLS, United won three MLS Cups (1996, 1997, 1999), two Supporters’ Shields (1997, 1999), an Open Cup (1996), a CONCACAF Champions Cup (1998) and the final edition of the Inter-American Cup (1998). Eight trophies in four years is quite the haul.

Inevitably, the winning pace slowed. Dynasties don’t last forever. Ask the Romans or the Ottomans. United went through a bit of wilderness before winning a fourth MLS Cup in 2004, back-to-back Supporters’ Shields in 2006 and 2007, and the 2008 Open Cup.

That 2008 Open Cup was the last silverware and success United fans had to cling to, as they watched the Galaxy pick up multiple league titles, and clubs like Real Salt Lake, the Columbus Crew, and the Colorado Rapids capture their first. Meanwhile, the Seattle Sounders made the Open Cup their own personal playground, winning in 2009, 2010, and 2011, beating United at RFK in the 2009 final.

It wasn’t until United reached the MLS playoffs last season and fell in the Eastern Final to Houston that fans felt things were finally turning around under head coach Ben Olsen, and maybe this year it would be time to take the next step and end United’s MLS Cup drought.

Then, 3-21-6 happened.

Probably more useful as a high school locker combination than an MLS club’s record, United has been on the wrong end of the stick so often in the league this season, they probably can’t see the stick at this point. They certainly won’t see the playoffs, long ago eliminated from postseason consideration.

So the Open Cup was all the club and its fans had to hold on to. Few teams with the record United has have hope, something to carry them thr0ugh the campaign based on the promise that maybe, just maybe, there will still be a reason to celebrate and still an occasion to throw a bit of needle in the faces of their rivals.

Taken together, you can’t call United’s Cup run a fluke. D.C. outscored its five opponents (four of them from MLS), 9-2. Three of the five matches were decided by 2-goal margins. The semifinal and the final were won on opposing teams’ grounds. Gone are the years where United could play game after game in the Cup at home. Faced with a more challenging road, United stood tall to the task with resolve, heart, and a purpose that some could fairly challenge the very existence of based on United’s league results and repeated failures.

Of course, there are some United fans today who are surely asking themselves, where was this form in the league? If it just took focus of purpose and a commitment to playing for each other to win the Open Cup, how did such things pass the club by when playing MLS matches, in some cases against the very same competition?

It’s a fair question. And one that cannot be easily answered. The promise of a new stadium at Buzzard Point sometime later in the decade, and a shiny new piece of silverware in United’s stocked trophy case, doesn’t hide the fact that this league season has verged on embarrassing. The Cup win eases the sting, but it doesn’t erase the facts.

To revitalize fan interest (those that come to games are still the best supporters in the league, there just need to be more of them) and to help keep stadium momentum rolling, United must find a way to be more competitive on a more consistent basis in the league, and not just once a month or so in Cup matches.

Tuesday night’s win gives United a bit of solid footing. Trophies are always well-received, and whether it was D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray tweeting about it, or all the media coverage of it, the success didn’t go unnoticed, even if only a select few across the country were able to watch it live.

Winning the Open Cup should be a nice point of pride for a while. This United team and its coaching staff now know the team can deliver in big games. That mentality and that focus must be featured in the league, as well, to start the road back to respectability as 2013 ends and eyes turn to the 2014 MLS season.

As nice as it is today to have a little fun with the rivals and to briefly get lost staring at the new, shiny, and hard-earned trophy, this Open Cup title should be a point from which to climb, not the summit.

Ed Morgans is the D.C. United Page Editor for District Sports Page. For in-game analysis and story notifications, follow him on Twitter @writered21.

About Ed Morgans

Ed Morgans is DC United Page Editor for District Sports Page. Ed worked for The Journal Newspapers (now The Examiner) and covered DC United from 1997-2002. He spent the 2003 season writing for the club’s website. Ed has covered All-Star Games, MLS Cups, CONCACAF Champions Cup, World Cup qualifiers, and international friendlies. He also worked as a blogger at www.bigsoccer.com, the country’s leading soccer message board website. You can follow Ed on Twitter @writerEd21.

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