Kickers 2, United 1

Maybe D.C. United should've paid closer attention to what's been happening to MLS teams in the U.S. Open Cup, the nationwide tournament that pits hungry clubs from the lower levels of American soccer against the nation's elite.

One day after three top-flight clubs tumbled out of the event at the hands of A-League teams, short-handed United turned in a dreary first-half performance Wednesday night and was ousted by the Richmond Kickers, 2-1, before 8,776 at University of Richmond Stadium -- believed to be the biggest crowd in the Kickers' 11-year history.

Richmond became the fourth minor league team this week to advance to the quarterfinals of the 90-year-old tournament -- which is open to all pro, semipro and amateur clubs in the country -- and will host the MLS's Chicago Fire on Aug. 4.

"I'm extremely disappointed," said United Coach Peter Nowak, who took a 10-minute postgame stroll around the back of the stadium with the team's head of personnel, Dave Kasper. "Maybe they didn't mature yet to win the cup. . . . Too many guys had a day off."

Nowak received strong second-half performances from his Ghanaian teenagers, Freddy Adu and Nana Kuffour, but that was about it. United faltered defensively, played uninspired soccer in the first half and didn't have enough to make up a two-goal deficit. Former Virginia Commonwealth star McColm Cephas scored twice for the Kickers, and Kuffour, making his United debut, connected on a header in the late stages.

"We were pretty bad," defender Mike Petke said. "Every one of us, except Nana, who gave us life, couldn't make one lousy pass. We're professional athletes, this is our job, and we didn't come to work."

United was without injured midfielders Ben Olsen, Earnie Stewart and Bobby Convey, who besides recovering from a thigh injury is anticipating a transfer to English club Reading soon. Also, all-star defender Ryan Nelsen was rested. But that was no excuse against a Richmond team with a handful of former MLS players and some promising ex-college stars.

United's methodical play through the first 30 minutes yielded few scoring opportunities, other than rookie Josh Gros's dangerous runs on the left. D.C.'s best opportunities came late in the half on a 30-yard free kick by Jaime Moreno that sailed narrowly wide to the right and Dema Kovalenko's fall in the box that appeared to be enough to draw a penalty kick. However, referee Hector Sobon let play continue, igniting the always volatile Kovalenko, who charged at the official to complain.

Richmond went ahead in the 33rd minute when Petke misplayed the ball deep in his end, allowing Cephas to chip it over goalkeeper Nick Rimando.

Adu entered at the start of the second half and brought a desperately needed dose of energy. Suddenly, United's attack was inventive and dangerous as Moreno dropped into a playmaking role and Adu joined Alecko Eskandarian up front. United seemed on the verge of an equalizer, but the Kickers struck again on a superb cross by Joey Worthen to Cephas for a one-timer past Rimando in the 64th minute.

Adu nearly halved the deficit four minutes later, but his 20-yard shot smacked the crossbar. He also continued to create opportunities on the right side, but Richmond defenders disrupted several opportunities deep in the box.

United finally found the target in the 82nd minute on Kuffour's header. He had entered just four minutes earlier. Adu set it up with a corner kick to the back post, where Kuffour nodded it down from short range.

"We didn't come out to play," Kovalenko said, "and it's all our fault. We've got to do better than that."

United, in second place in MLS's Eastern Conference, will return to league play Saturday at Dallas.

Freddy Adu untangles himself after scramble for the ball. Adu set up Nana Kuffour for D.C. United's only goal.