Its MLS season in tatters, D.C. United focuses on winning U.S. Open Cup

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; 12:18 AM

Soccer is a forgiving sport. Falter in one competition, and another offers redemption. By most measures, D.C. United has been a downright disaster this year, heading toward the worst regular season record in its 14-year history and threatening to set dubious MLS marks for scoring futility.

Amid the ruin, however, United has found solace in the U.S. Open Cup, a 96-year-old tournament involving clubs from all levels of American soccer. The event lacks the substance of the league campaign and doesn't have the honor of international play, which serves as another outlet for MLS clubs sputtering in the regular season.

But the Open Cup does dangle a trophy, bonus money and a ticket to the 2011-12 CONCACAF Champions League. And in a year that has gone terribly wrong in so many ways, United hopes to continue drawing comfort from the Open Cup on Wednesday night with a semifinal against the Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium.

"It's a tough year; we've all struggled," interim coach Ben Olsen said. "It has not been fun, and here is a chance to get into a final and raise a trophy, something that this club has always prided itself on. It's huge, the biggest game of the season."

With a victory, United would advance to the final for the third consecutive year and set up a meeting next month with the defending champion Seattle Sounders or Chivas USA. If United and the Sounders win, Seattle would host the championship game Oct. 5. A D.C.-Chivas final would take place Oct. 6 at RFK.

United's situation is similar to the 2009-10 Portsmouth squad in England. Amid a last-place finish in the Premier League, Pompey surged to the final of the FA Cup, a competition that inspired the Open Cup, before losing to Chelsea, 1-0.

Domestic cup competitions run concurrent to league schedules, with clubs alternating between the two in any given week. To qualify for the tournament, United needed to dispatch MLS rivals FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake. The club then defeated the Richmond Kickers and Harrisburg City Islanders, from the third tier of the pro pyramid, to reach the semifinals.

"Obviously, the [MLS] playoffs are out of the question, and this Open Cup, we've done well the last few years," forward-midfielder Chris Pontius said. "Anything short of lifting up the trophy will be a disappointment for us, given the circumstances of the year."

In league play, United is 4-15-3 with eight matches remaining. It will miss the playoffs for the third straight year and, having been shut out 14 times and scored just 14 goals, D.C. is on the verge of MLS infamy. Conversely, in the Open Cup, United has scored 10 goals in four matches.

Olsen has had to balance the demands of league matches with the approaching Open Cup semifinal. He used several reserves in a 1-0 loss at Chivas USA on Sunday night and will have most of his top-line players available against the Crew.

Absences include starting midfielder Branko Boskovic, who has joined the Montenegro national team for 2012 European Championship qualifiers against Wales and Bulgaria; and defender Jed Zayner, who is ineligible because he played for Columbus in the Open Cup this year. (Such players are considered "cup-tied.")

Forward Danny Allsopp, who has a team-high four goals in league play, is expected to return to the starting lineup after overcoming stomach flu.

"It's been difficult [this year], and this could be a real good thing for us," Allsopp said. "This would give us a chance, if we can get past this game, to get some silverware out of the season."

United note: Rookie defender Barry Rice, who made his first career league start against Chivas USA, received eight stitches on his left eyebrow and will not be available Wednesday. He was injured on an aerial challenge late in the first half and did not return.

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