D.C. United has MLS game Sunday, but it must also keep Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup semifinals in mind

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010; 12:07 AM

In three days, D.C. United will play in its biggest match of the year. If only that pesky MLS regular season wasn't interrupting the preparations.

With almost no hope of making the playoffs, United is looking for salvation from the U.S. Open Cup, a 96-year-old tournament that runs concurrent to the normal schedule and offers a consolation prize when all else is lost.

But before hosting the Columbus Crew in a semifinal Wednesday at RFK Stadium, the club must face Chivas USA in a league match Sunday night at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

While the players say they are committed to the challenge at hand and seek to continue building momentum after ending an eight-game winless streak in league play last weekend, the Open Cup has figured into interim coach Ben Olsen's planning.

Two starters, defender Marc Burch and forward Pablo Hernandez, were given the weekend off. Burch needs to rest a surgically repaired foot and Hernandez could use a break after logging many minutes, Olsen said.

Forward Danny Allsopp, coming off a two-goal performance against the Philadelphia Union, remained at home because of an illness that the club feared was contagious. And depending how the Chivas game unfolds, other regulars could take a seat in the second half.

"I don't think it's brain surgery," Olsen said of balancing needs during a busy stretch. "When you have these periods, you certainly have to look a little bit into the future and manage things - that's part of this job - but our focus is solely on Chivas and getting a result. The energy is good, and we want to continue it."

Although United (4-14-3) still has the fewest points in the 16-team league, it played with greater commitment and poise last weekend in recording its first shutout victory in MLS competition. A triumph against Chivas USA (5-11-4) would help brighten a gloomy season and boost confidence heading into the Open Cup match.

"The mood is continuing to get better," central defender Julius James said. "Hopefully we have gotten past the worst and can keep building."

After Sunday, however, logistics will present challenges leading into Wednesday's game against the Crew, the Eastern Conference leader. Instead of a usual Saturday date, the United-Chivas match was scheduled for Sunday to accommodate national TV coverage. United will travel all of Monday and have just a single day to ready itself for Columbus.

"We all know it's there against Columbus," midfielder-forward Chris Pontius said. "I hear people saying that it is our saving grace, but we have to use these league games to get better as well."

United notes: Defender Carey Talley has returned from a groin injury, but defender Juan Manuel Pena (quadriceps) remains out. . . .

Captain Jaime Moreno, MLS's career scoring leader who is in his final season with D.C. United, will be honored by Chivas USA in a pregame ceremony. . . .

Spanish midfielder Carlos Varela will continue his tryout this week after showing well in four sessions. . . .

Pontius, a Southern California native who has recovered from a hamstring ailment, said he will have an estimated 60 family members and friends in attendance.

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