An unusual sensation washed over D.C. United’s players, staff and indomitable traveling supporters at the foot of the Wasatch mountains, a feeling that has been missing for almost a year: unadulterated joy.
A 2013 campaign that has gone so horribly wrong — three victories in 30 regular season matches — took an improbable and wondrous turn Tuesday night with a 1-0 victory over Real Salt Lake in the U.S. Open Cup final at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Players doused Ben Olsen with a barrel of energy drink and tossed investor Will Chang into the air. They danced and hugged. They saluted their fans in the upper deck, and when the group of 50 or more made its way to the lower level, the players embraced them.
In the locker room, during a raucous celebration around the prized hardware, John Thorrington executed two belly slides across tarp-covered floors glazed in Bud Light.
United, highly decorated over its history but in the dumps all year, was happy again.
Among the carry-on baggage aboard Delta flight 2356 from SLC to BWI on Wednesday will be the Open Cup trophy, the club’s 13th honor in 18 seasons. (For those interested in greeting the team, the flight is scheduled to arrive around 4 p.m. ET.)
They will also take home $250,000 (divided among the players), a berth in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League and MLS allocation money for the purpose of meeting the roster demands of international competition.
Where does this upset stack up with other Open Cup championship surprises in the MLS era? Although DCU and RSL are miles apart in the league campaign, they are both in the first division. So the biggest upset will remain the 1999 final: the second-tier Rochester Rhinos defeating MLS’s Colorado Rapids, 2-0, at a neutral site (Columbus). Rochester upset four MLS clubs en route to the title. Since then, a lower-division team has not won the championship.
United won despite placing one shot on goal (Lewis Neal‘s goal). It won despite conceding 70 percent of possession.
DCU’s regular season record: 3-21-6.
DCU’s Open Cup record: 4-0-1. (the draw was a penalty kick tiebreaker victory at Richmond)
United is winless in 16 regular season away matches (0-13-3), but unbeaten in three Open Cup trips (2-0-1).
Strange days, indeed. Most peculiar, mama.
My DCU-RSL match report is available here.
The scene in the locker room, courtesy of the USSF:
Bonus Olsen comments:
On the hectic finish …
“It was a long 15, 20 … 90 minutes. The onslaught was most of the second half. They were coming in waves and you can’t fall asleep for a second. I think the size of the game helped us focus.”
On rediscovering last year’s magic through the Open Cup …
“As each game went, our belief in the Open Cup grew. It shows it’s still a good group. Belief in this league is a strange thing. You saw it last year: We weren’t that great, an above-average MLS team, but we had a certain belief. We lost that belief early in the  season with a lot of losses.”
On the tactical decision to sit Luis Silva until the second half and start Neal …
“DeRo and Silva at times can be a little like-minded. We knew we would be under the gun at times and needed a relief valve. Chris Pontius gave us that. Lewis Neal needed to be on the field: his experience, he’s a big-game player and tactically he made sense. They [RSL] get a lot in the middle and pick teams apart and him being in there; we forced them to the outside.”
On moving forward …
“This helps. Believe me, this helps. Now we have a new energy to finish the season in the right way and look forward to CONCACAF [next year] and these guys can look forward to spending a little extra money on Christmas.”