D.C. United Faces Tough Road for Open Cup Title Defense

Because of their poor MLS finish last year, Coach Tom Soehn, forward Luciano Emilio and D.C. United will have to work harder to defend their Open Cup title.
Because of their poor MLS finish last year, Coach Tom Soehn, forward Luciano Emilio and D.C. United will have to work harder to defend their Open Cup title. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

D.C. United is the U.S. Open Cup defending champion, but you'd hardly know it from the club's starting point in this year's tournament.

With no special dispensation for the title holder and placement based on the 2008 MLS regular season, United will need to penetrate two layers of preliminaries just to join many of its league rivals in the round of 16 -- the usual entry stage for teams from the highest tier of American soccer.

A victory tonight against FC Dallas at RFK Stadium would set up a meeting with New York or San Jose next month. The winner of that encounter would then skip the first two rounds of the tournament proper and probably face a second- or third-division opponent this summer.

"It takes away the sense of defending the title because we are actually not even in the tournament yet," defender Bryan Namoff said yesterday. "Maybe it makes us eager to show we can win this tournament again even though we have to go through a play-in game to get there."

Modeled after the fabled English FA Cup, the U.S. Open Cup is a 95-year-old tournament with participants ranging from amateur leagues to MLS. The top six finishers in MLS last year earned automatic berths in the round of 16, while the other eight U.S.-based teams were placed in brackets for two slots. (Toronto FC is ineligible for an American cup competition.)

Last year, United won the tournament for the second time and became the 12th MLS team in 13 years to claim the title. Since its launch in 1996, MLS has been responsible for 23 of 26 finalists. The second-tier USL1 has sent the other three teams to the final: Rochester twice and Charleston.

The Open Cup winner earns $100,000 and a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, an international event with Canadian, Latin American and Caribbean clubs.

The Open Cup was United's only solace last year after flaming out in three other nonleague competitions and failing to qualify for the MLS playoffs. Though the league title and Champions League are higher priorities, the Open Cup offers a unique format and a history dating from the early 20th century when winners included Brooklyn Field Club and Bethlehem Steel.

"As disappointing as last year was, we still managed to hold something up," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "I love the Open Cup. I love the history of it. I hope we continue to do well in it."

The tournament presents a personnel challenge for United Coach Tom Soehn, who must balance the desire to advance with resting regulars heading into Sunday's league match at New York. Midfielder Christian Gómez will not play after injuring a hamstring last Friday, Soehn said, and some other starters will give way to reserves.

Midfielders Santino Quaranta and Fred might be summoned after missing much of the early season while recovering from hamstring injuries, and midfielder Andrew Jacobson, defender Greg Janicki and forward Francis Doe are candidates to start.

United also might take a look at rookie goalkeeper Milos Kocic, who "works tremendously hard every day," Soehn said. "He is wanting to learn as much as he can. Whether he gets a game [against Dallas] or not, we are encouraged to see how he does because he has a huge upside."

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