Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By PABLO MAURER
WASHINGTON – Ben Olsen walked into the media work room at RFK Stadium on Sunday afternoon, a smile on his face and bounce in his step. Turning to the collection of reporters who’d gathered to speak with him after D.C. United’s late-morning training session, the third year coach chuckled, shrugged, and offered his greeting.
“Well, here goes nothing.”
You can’t blame Olsen for his levity. Wading through the depths of a historically bad season, he’s found a way to guide his club to the U.S. Open Cup final, giving United a chance to find some joy in an otherwise funereal campaign.
“We’re excited about the opportunity we have,” Olsen reiterated on Sunday.”Not many people are giving us a chance in this game – but we’ve decided we’re going to show up anyways and see if we can’t win it.”
D.C. enter Tuesday evening’s final with Real Salt Lake carrying a strange bit of confidence. There’s been a positive energy at the club’s training sessions as of late, even after the club’s latest loss, a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of lowly Toronto FC. For a 3-21-6 club who haven’t won a single league match away from home all year, D.C. United have somehow managed to keep their chins up.
“It’s easy to do that when you know you’re in a final,” Dwayne De Rosario noted after Sunday’s training session. “It’s been a while since we’ve played the semis and obviously there’s a lot of thinking and games in between – some results we weren’t’ happy about. But we can shed some light on a very disappointing year with this win.”
United’s improbable run through to the final started predictably enough – they needed extra time and penalty kicks to dispatch of the third tier Richmond Kickers in May, and looked like a side destined to exit the tournament early. But they somehow found a rhythm, playing the sort of attractive, possession-oriented soccer that’s eluded them in league matches.
They’d ride a De Rosario hat trick to victory in the fourth round against Philadelphia; Chris Pontius and Joe Willis would guide United to a surprising quarterfinal victory over New England a month later. Their semi-final matchup with Chicago in August proved even more surprising – De Rosario found himself on the scoresheet again, increasing his tournament-leading goal count to five after scoring the winner in United’s 2-0 victory over the Fire.
United have good reason to be optimistic. After struggling with injuries throughout the year, D.C. are finally healthy – allowing them to gel and build chemistry, something they’ve been lacking all year. Defender Daniel Woolard – who’s been hampered by a hamstring injury – saw action at the weekend against Toronto, and Olsen says he’s good to go against RSL. Pontius, who’s been a question mark all year with an assortment of injuries, said on Sunday he feels 100% fit for the first time in 2013.
Still, United temper their confidence with realism. Their Open Cup victories at Richmond and Chicago remain their only road victories of the year, and they’re on pace to set all-time records for futility in multiple categories.
“There’s no two ways about it,” De Rosario said matter-of-factly. “Salt Lake is the favorite to win…[they're] a good team. I think they’ve found a recipe that works for them and they’ve stuck with it. Anytime you go there you know you’re gonna get a battle.”
If United are to pull off the upset, they’ll need to throw a wrench in RSL’s possession game, something Olsen and Pontius are both very aware of. “We have to look to eliminate their possession and force them into tough decisions,” Pontius told SBI yesterday afternoon. “When we do win the ball we have to be patient with ourselves. We can’t just play a counterattacking game, they’ll eventually just pick you apart if you do that. You won’t have the legs for 90 minutes to do it – we need to be patient and make the right decisions on the ball.”
For their part, RSL aren’t taking this final lightly. In the middle of a frantic Supporters’ Shield race, Jason Kreis rested most of his starting XI against Vancouver this past weekend. Perennial contenders for the past half-decade, the Claret and Cobalt have but a single cup to their name, something Kreis himself seems keen on changing.
“We said for the next six weeks that the most important match for us is the Open Cup final. Yes, we want to compete for the Supporters’ Shield, but for me the chance to win something in a one off game has to take precedence. We are also very excited for the opportunity that we have, and really excited to play that matchup in front of our fans.”
In Ben Olsen’s eyes, D.C.’s unexpected success in Open Cup play is indicative of an underlying strength he sees in his squad. Whether that strength can push them through another 90 minutes remains to be seen.
“I think getting to the finals in a season like this says a lot about these guys,” Olsen noted before concluding his interview session. “The fact that the wheels didn’t come off of this team, or this club… I’ve always said I’d be the first to hold my hand up and be responsible for the season we’ve had – for these guys to pull together and find themselves in a final is a credit to them, a credit to the club. Winning it would obviously take that to the next level.”
“(Real) Salt Lake are a great team, and it’s not the easiest place to play in the league. But… we have a belief.”