Wednesday's championship final in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup looks like a classic matchup of superior talent against superior motivation.
The Charleston Battery, from the USL's first division, travels up the coast to face D.C. United, with the odds tilting heavily toward the MLS team -- MLS teams have claimed Open Cup glory in all but one year since the league's 1996 introduction.
Charleston may belong to the second-tier sibling to MLS on domestic soccer's family tree, but the Battery holds one important psychological advantage: this match simply means a little more for manager Mike Anhaeuser's club than it does for D.C. United. USL teams typically hold the Open Cup in higher regard. Indeed, Anhaeuser called this match the most significant in club history, and humbly admitted on Friday, just hours before a USL-1 match, that it was difficult to focus on matters at hand with such a huge moment for his franchise pending.
Anhaeuser said the same about the club's semifinal win more than three weeks ago over the Seattle Sounders -- so just getting into Wednesday's final at RFK Stadium ranks as a monumental achievement for the Battery.
It's also big for Charleston because of the venue, which sits just beyond the White House and is one of domestic soccer's most history-steeped facilities. Perhaps it gets lost on regularly visiting MLS clubs, but RFK has, in fact, played host to MLS Championships, important World Cup qualifiers and matches in the 1994 World Cup.
|U.S. Open Cup final|
D.C. United vs. Charleston
RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
7:30 p.m. ET
Anhaeuser, a fourth-year pro manager who won an NCAA championship with Indiana in 1998, is aware of where this match will rank for many of his players. So he'll tweak training in the days ahead to perhaps mitigate any jitters. "We'll go through our usual preparations, but we'll add some other things, some lighter, more enjoyable things to the routine," he said.
Will Charleston's desire be enough against United, a club that seems to have fixed its goalkeeper problem, one that has recently established more midfield equilibrium and that has been riding a hot striker in Luciano Emilio? Manager Tom Soehn and his club can easily claim top billing in terms of talent, even as his team continues to deal with injuries to key players.
Plus, United certainly isn't without its own motivation. The club surely hopes to claim victory in the 95-year-old tournament, which is named after the generous American soccer pioneer. United officials are ever clear on one point: the club, with four MLS titles, expects to consistently compete for hardware. So even if United can't completely match the Battery's level of desire, it certainly aims to be the ultimate survivor in this all-comers, knock-out competition.
D.C. United midfielder Clyde Simms said the $100,000 prize money for the winner ($50,000 to the runner-up) and an automatic spot in next year's CONCACAF Champions League add motivational elements for United. But he understands the scale of desire tips elsewhere in such matches.
"That's a big concern in these games," said Simms. "They can come out hard and catch you by surprise. Then maybe they get a goal, and they can make things really hard for you."
The 2008 Open Cup began in the spring, with D.C. United pushing through challenges from the USL's Rochester Rhinos and MLS's Chicago Fire and New England Revolution en route to Wednesday's final.
While United certainly desires a trophy mantle addition, the pecking order of priorities isn't quite as clear. Just like all MLS sides, the Open Cup falls far below the MLS championship quest in terms of seasonal priorities. United is right in the thick of the playoff chase, currently tied for fourth in the seven-team Eastern Conference. United just came off a SuperLiga quest, and will soon join the 16-team field for group play in the newly created CONCACAF Champions League.
For United, the Open Cup may reside third, fourth or fifth on the seasonal wish list. Soehn and his players weren't as tempted to peek ahead to the Open Cup final, and the probably couldn't have even if they wanted to.
Saturday brought an MLS regular season contest against United's bitter rival, the New York Red Bulls, which ended in a 0-0 draw that dented United's hopes of remaining in the Supporter's Shield chase -- yet another item on United's substantial, annual grocery list. Any further standings slippage and United could suddenly face desperate times in the playoff chase -- a dire warning as the club braces for a cross-country trip next weekend to face the suddenly striding San Jose Earthquakes.
The Battery arrived at Wednesday's match -- which is expected to draw a crowd of perhaps 10,000 -- via wins over the amateur ASC New Stars, USL-2's Charlotte Eagles, MLS's Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas and, finally, a victory over the Sounders in a tense and bitterly contested semifinal.
This is just the second time MLS and USL clubs have met in the Open Cup final. D.C. United upended the Rochester Rhinos in 1996. Three years later, Rochester claimed the USL's only Open Cup since MLS was born, defeating Colorado in the title contest.
Charleston will need a big night from veteran attacker Lazo Alavanja, an Indiana University product who played in 58 MLS matches over four seasons with Dallas, Miami and D.C. United. His time in MLS was mostly in midfield, but for the Battery he lines up as a second striker in Anhaeuser's 4-4-2.
Former MLS defenders Marco Reda and Nelson Akwari, who played in a combined 78 MLS matches over five recent seasons, stabilize the back line in front of veteran goalkeeper Dusty Hudock. Hudock's 14 years in professional soccer includes a patchwork of stops in MLS and USL.
Charleston cinched up its USL weekend involvement early, shifting into tournament-final prep mode after a 0-0 draw with the Puerto Rico Islanders Friday before 5,067 fans at the splendid 5,000-seat Blackbaud Stadium. With an extra day of cushion between matches, Anhaeuser was able to field his top team.
Injured midfielders Marcelo Gallardo and Fred, a big part of the United's first-choice attacking package, could possibly play on Wednesday but are unlikely to start. Defender Gonzalo Peralta is probably out. Forward Francis Doe and veteran midfielder Ben Olsen are practicing again, but probably can't start.
Anhaeuser would certainly prefer to play at Blackbaud, where the game would surely draw a sellout crowd. Wednesday's underdogs have been dismal outside of South Carolina, with seven losses in 12 road contests this year (a 1-7-4 mark). The club is 3-18-5 on the road over the last two years, although it did eliminate FC Dallas by a 3-1 margin in 2008 Open Cup play away from home.
The venue for Wednesday's final was chosen through U.S. Soccer's bid process.
"But we're not disappointed," Anhaeuser said, "because the players and club get to play a game at one of the best soccer facilities in the United States."
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.