By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
If D.C. United were to list this year's competitions in order of importance, the U.S. Open Cup would fall somewhere in the middle -- not as satisfying as the MLS chase or the regional events that serve as gateways to global rewards, but more gratifying than the midseason U.S.-Mexican challenge.
Considering, however, that United has not played in a championship game of any kind for almost four years, tonight's Open Cup final against the second-division Charleston Battery at RFK Stadium has moved to the forefront of the club's pursuits.
"This club is about winning championships," General Manager Dave Kasper said. "It's important for the club but also important for this group this year to go out and win something. From that, hopefully it will be a springboard to more things."
For the players, there is a $100,000 grand prize to share. For the team, there is an automatic berth in the 2009-10 CONCACAF Champions League, a competition modeled after the prestigious European version and involves teams from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
United qualified for the inaugural Champions League, which begins in earnest in two weeks, by virtue of having the most points during the 2007 MLS regular season. But with the club struggling in league play this year, the Open Cup and MLS Cup are the only avenues to the next Champions League.
The last time United played in a title match was 2004, when it won its fourth MLS Cup with a 3-2 victory over the Kansas City Wizards at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. The last time it hosted a championship game was 10 years ago, a 1-0 win over Mexican club Toluca for the Champions' Cup crown.
"We know how important it is to play for a trophy at home," team captain Jaime Moreno said. "Not many times do you have that opportunity."
Moreno, who has spent 12 of his 13 MLS seasons in Washington, is among four players remaining from the 2004 D.C. championship roster, along with Ben Olsen, Bryan Namoff and Santino Quaranta.
The Open Cup is a 94-year-old tournament with clubs from all levels of U.S. soccer. Imagine major and minor league baseball teams entered in a event that runs concurrent to the regular season. Since MLS's launch in 1996, its teams have won the Open Cup all but one year. The Battery, which plays in the Daniel Island development outside the historic South Carolina city, is the first non-MLS team to advance to the final since the Rochester Rhinos won the title nine years ago.
Led by several former MLS players, including ex-United regulars Stephen Armstrong, John Wilson and Lazo Alavanja, the Battery (10-9-7) is tied for third place in the 11-team USL1. Its path to the Open Cup final included victories over MLS's Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas, and a penalty kick triumph over league rival Seattle in the semifinals.
Having not won the Open Cup since 1996 and not appeared in the final since '97, United took a more serious approach to this summer's competition than in years past when it relied on reserves and was often eliminated by lower-division opponents.
A victory tonight would help atone for disappointing performances in the Champions' Cup in April and the SuperLiga in July, not to mention its 10-10-2 record (tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference) during the regular season.
It would also add a much-needed addition to the stately trophy case standing in the lobby of team headquarters at RFK.
"It's a chance to win a trophy, something that doesn't come along too often," Quaranta said. "Naturally you say that they are in the USL, but realistically they beat two MLS teams to get there, and you have to respect that. We're excited about it. It's going to be a tough test, I can guarantee that."
United notes: Forward Luciano Emilio, who left Saturday's game against New York just before halftime with a groin injury, took part in full workouts yesterday. Midfielder Fred (hamstring) is also likely to be available.