Three thoughts from D.C. United’s stunning 1-0 upset of host Real Salt Lake in Tuesday’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final:
1 . Cup magic is real
Anything is possible and form is irrelevant in a single-elimination competition. It’s why cup tournaments captivate fans around the world, and it’s how United became a champion on Tuesday.
D.C. has won three of 30 MLS regular season games during an historically inept campaign. Yet it won four of its five Open Cup matches (a third-round tie against the third-tier Richmond Kickers was settled on penalty kicks), including the final on an opportunistic 45th-minute goal from midfielder Lewis Neal (video after the jump).
As a result, a team that likely will go down as the worst in club history is the one that claimed D.C.’s third Open Cup title, 13th major trophy -- extending its all-time lead over the L.A. Galaxy -- and a spot in the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League.
“Not many people are giving us a chance in this game but we’ve decided to show up anyway and see if we can’t win it,” United’s embattled coach, Ben Olsen, said on Sunday. “To their credit, these guys have separated the season and the Open Cup and got themselves into a final.”
Olsen then claimed, “We have a belief that we have a shot,” and D.C. showed it from the opening whistle. RSL held the advantage in possession, as expected, but United’s shape remained sturdy and it maintained its cool. Perry Kitchen and John Thorrington were classy in central midfield and Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon offered just enough of a threat on the flanks to keep the hosts honest.
As the first half ticked to a close, Thorrington saw his cross deflect out toward Neal, who powered his one-timer past Nick Rimando. Neal, who joined D.C. last season from Orlando City after going on trial at RSL, was making just his fourth start of a year plagued by injury. He hadn’t scored in more than 11 months. He took United's only shot on goal of the evening.
But that’s the magic of the Cup, and sometimes it shines in surprising places.
2. RSL is snakebitten in finals.
It’s tough to draw a different conclusion. For all the club has done right -- from the consistent regular season excellence to the fluid, beguiling style of play -- Salt Lake has put together a lamentable history in big games.
In the six-plus seasons under coach Jason Kreis and GM Garth Lagerwey, RSL has played in seven matches with a trophy at stake -- one MLS Cup final, one Open Cup final, three MLS conference finals and the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League finals, which comprised two games. Its record is 0-4-3 in those contests. RSL’s two trophies came via penalty kicks, and its three games on home soil ended in 1-0 losses.
It’s a brutal record for a club that has contributed quite a bit to the sport in the U.S., but it’s not entirely undeserved. On Tuesday night, like in previous finals, RSL simply lacked the sort of clinical killer instinct that wins big games. It also lacked luck -- the loss of midfielder Luis Gil to an emergency appendectomy on Sunday was an early sign that fortune wasn't favoring Salt Lake.
Once the game started, RSL attackers made heroes out of D.C. defenders Dejan Jakovic and Ethan White, goalkeeper Bill Hamid and the crossbar, which the hosts hit twice. Shots were sent over, wide or straight at a defender and possession counted for little against an overmatched but well-organized opponent that bent but didn’t break.
“In the big games, the great teams, they find a way to win,” RSL defender Nat Borchers said before the match.
RSL plays good soccer, identifies and develops talent like no one else in MLS and has cultivated a loyal following. But it can’t yet win the big games. It can’t yet be called “great”.
3. This game deserved a wider audience.
The Open Cup represents American club soccer’s one piece of legitimate, long-term history and the 100th final should have been a celebration for all.
Instead, it was a private party.
Aside from the fans at Rio Tinto Stadium, only a handful of viewers fortunate enough to have access to Gol TV -- or a well-connected and sympathetic sports bar -- were able to watch the match.
Last summer, the U.S. Soccer Federation sold the broadcast rights to the 2013-15 Open Cup finals to Gol, which subsequently was dropped by just about every major cable and digital TV provider in exchange for BeIN Sport.
There is no indication that the deal required the network to maintain a minimum number of subscribers and unfortunately, USSF wasn’t able (or didn’t try) to negotiate a remedy. Meanwhile, Gol could have at least made the feed available via a pay-per-view stream in an effort to remind viewers it still existed. But it chose not to. In the end, American soccer fans were the losers. The Open Cup is a 100-year-old adolescent. It has great potential but still is searching for an identity. U.S. Soccer has done plenty right in recent years -- awarding a CONCACAF Champions League berth to the winner, ending the controversial system that awarded hosting rights to the highest bidder and slotting MLS clubs into an earlier round. But unless it figures out a way to make its showpiece match available to an actual audience, this great tournament’s growth will remain stunted.