In This Hamlet, United Is Not to Be
Thursday, July 12, 2007
LANDISVILLE, Pa., July 11 -- To get to the site of Wednesday night's U.S. Open Cup match, D.C. United's bus exited Interstate 83, headed east on state highway 30 and rolled through the gentle hills of Amish country. It passed corn fields, cow pastures and produce stands, turned onto Church Street (because that's where the church is), rumbled through a quiet neighborhood and pulled into the handsome campus of Hempfield High School.
With the unmistakable scent of nearby farms saturating the thick air, the players strolled onto an artificial turf football field, complete with uprights and yard marks, to the sounds of Huey Lewis and Toto.
United has played in a lot of unique settings over the years -- in Bermuda, Guatemala City and Hong Kong, at altitude in Mexico City and in the snow in Denver -- but perhaps nowhere quite like this.
The outcome was just as uncanny: a 1-0 loss to the Harrisburg City Islanders, a team on the third tier of the U.S. pro system. Before an overflow crowd of 5,219, Steve Fisher scored late in the first half for Harrisburg, which advanced to face the New England Revolution in an Aug. 7 quarterfinal.
"I don't want to say that we were pathetic, but you have a couple opportunities each year in different tournaments to do well, and to come in here and lose this game the way we lost it is upsetting," said defender Bobby Boswell, one of only two full-time starters in the lineup. "You are out of the tournament, just like that."
The U.S. Open Cup is a 93-year-old single-elimination event open to all registered teams in the country, ranging from adult amateur sides to MLS clubs, and offering a $100,000 grand prize. It's like the NCAA basketball tournament, but with teams from all divisions playing in-season and having home-field advantage. Think Georgetown going on the road to play Mary Washington.
The City Islanders -- who were awarded hosting rights to this game by the tournament organizer, the U.S. Soccer Federation -- decided to play in this hamlet of 4,800 about 30 miles southeast of Harrisburg and just outside Lancaster to expand its local appeal.
The primary dilemma for Coach Tom Soehn was not the environment, but how to balance the need to rest his regulars during the heart of the MLS schedule with the danger of being upset by a club in just its fourth year. In the end, he decided to rely heavily on reserves, the exceptions being Boswell and Brian Carroll and part-time starters Clyde Simms and Nicholas Addlery.
With second-string personnel, United had to proceed with extreme caution after seeing two MLS teams fall on the road to lower-level opponents and two others receive scares this week. D.C.'s worst fears came to fruition.
"It was a great opportunity for our reserves to show what they are about," Soehn said. "I really felt like they let themselves down tonight. We need to walk away from a game like this today and say those guys really stand out. They should be playing on the weekends [in league games] and I don't get that feeling from a lot of the guys today."
Besides confronting a determined opponent, United had trouble establishing possession on the artificial surface. The first half provided little more than rookie Brad North missing on a short volley, Stephen deRoux spraying a few crosses into the box and D.C. goalkeeper Jay Nolly making a one-on-one save on David Schofield.
But just before the break, Nolly misread a corner kick, allowing Fisher to easily head Schofield's service into a vacant net.
"I came out and kind of collided with [Boswell] and his guy," Nolly said. "I didn't get full jump on it; I thought I could have come and got it. It was just over my fingertips."
Said Soehn, "If he's coming to get it, he's got to get it."
United was much sharper in the second half, but still lacked serious threats. As time grew shorter, Harrisburg bunkered in. Addlery missed narrowly wide and Mira Mupier botched a point-blank volley.
"It's tough to play these kinds of games where the other team is going 150 miles per hour the whole game," Nolly said. "We could just never get the ball settled down. We couldn't play our style of soccer. They took us out of rhythm and we missed some chances."