MLS Rivals, Out-of-League Experience

United's Clyde Simms, right, and the Fire's Cuauhtémoc Blanco, shown last year, may get to square off again tonight.
United's Clyde Simms, right, and the Fire's Cuauhtémoc Blanco, shown last year, may get to square off again tonight. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

In a game that has no bearing on the MLS standings at a facility that does not house an MLS team, D.C. United will play one of its most bitter league rivals. The circumstance and setting are not ideal, although the distaste likely will be present regardless.

United will host the Chicago Fire tonight at Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup. This will be the third meeting between the teams this season. On May 8, the Fire quieted RFK Stadium by topping United, 2-0. On June 7, United forward Luciano Emilio surprised the host Fire with an extended-time goal to win, 2-1. Tonight's match will be played in a unique venue for two MLS teams with no significance to anything MLS-related, from standings to statistics. It is the only U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal between two MLS clubs.

"We go into the game like it's any other game, and we'd love to beat Chicago and we know they feel the same," midfielder Clyde Simms said. "Every game [against Chicago] it's been a battle, especially during the playoffs. But it's not that much of a drop-off during the season."

United and the Fire have met before in elimination games, and the Fire prevailed each time. The teams met in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup in 2006. The Fire won, 3-0. In the MLS Cup playoffs, the Fire beat United five times and have played to two draws. Most recently, the Fire eliminated United from last season's postseason.

"It's a special game, I'd say, because the last couple years they've been pretty good and beating us in a bad way," 13-year veteran Jaime Moreno said. "It's a good chance for us to get revenge."

Revenge came in part during the teams' last meeting, when Emilio's improbable goal started a five-game win streak. Playing undermanned in stoppage time, Emilio saw his goal not just as a game-winner but as validation against a team that has long pestered United.

"They eliminated us from the playoffs last year and it had been a while since we beat them," Emilio said through a translator. "It showed us that we can beat them."

A central figure in the rivalry is United Coach Tom Soehn. The Chicago native played for the Fire for part of his five-year MLS career and was an assistant coach with the club from 2001 to '03. He was a member of the Fire's U.S. Open Cup championship squad in 1998 and 2000. In order to win United's first U.S. Open Cup since 1996, Soehn must find a way past his former team.

"I'm far removed from there," Soehn said. "It's another game, and a rival because they're in our conference. If it's a league game or a U.S. Cup game, it's important."

Emphasizing the U.S. Open Cup is an approach United took this season after an embarrassing defeat to third-tier Harrisburg in last season's opening game of the tournament. Injuries and fatigue played a factor in the lineup in last week's win over the Rochester Rhinos. The United played just four starters from their previous game, although they managed to win, 2-0. The Fire's lineup will be a point of intrigue considering it played a league game Saturday.

When Soehn was asked about the status of injured United players, he said everyone will find out on the field. He might have tipped his hand later when asked about the difference between a league game between the two rivals and a U.S. Open Cup game and responded, "both teams look at it in a way that they won't jeopardize a guy carrying injuries."

Midfielder Marcelo Gallardo is questionable. Four players will not play. Midfielders Ben Olsen (ankle) and Dan Stratford (knee) both underwent surgery. Midfielder Quavas Kirk and Santino Quaranta are out with hamstring injuries. Quaranta is hoping to return for the July 19 SuperLiga match against the Houston Dynamo or the July 22 regular season game against the Dynamo, but it will be tough for him sitting out tonight against the team he considers United's most bitter rival.

"I've only been out for a week and I'm going crazy," Quaranta said. "It seems like whenever we play them, it's a fight. The soccer's not the best all the time. . . . It seems more like a battle."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company