Last year, D.C. United's Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup campaign ended on the same night it began, courtesy of a galling 2-1 loss to the USL's Richmond Kickers at their University of Richmond Stadium home.
That result was on everyone's mind on Wednesday night as the two teams clashed again in the 91-year-old knockout tournament for the third time in four years. But aside from a dicey period early in the second half, United controlled the match and overcame a spirited challenge from the Kickers to win 3-1.
"They're a good team, and it's a very big game for them," said United midfielder Dema Kovalenko. "They were just looking for that one chance. We didn't want what happened last year to happen again. ... If they'd scored first, it would have been really difficult for us. But we didn't panic."
The visit by the MLS champion drew a crowd of 8,412 to UR Stadium, more than triple the Kickers' typical attendance, and it was obvious that this game was special for the Richmond fans as well as the players.
"It's just always a tough battle with these [USL First Division] teams," said striker Santino Quaranta. "They kind of play for this all year."
United held the lion's share of possession and went ahead 1-0 on Freddy Adu's 26th-minute strike. But as in other matches this season, the Black-and-Red failed to translate that dominance onto the scoreboard, leaving Richmond room to pull level on a well-hit goal by Kickers striker McColm Cephas, whose brace sank D.C. in last year's matchup.
"I knew it was going to be trouble when they put Cephas and KJ (Kevin Jeffrey) up top," said United midfielder Clyde Simms of his former team's halftime subs. "I knew they were going to come at us more. They took us by surprise and got that goal."
"They gave us a hard time, but it was a moment where we put ourselves in a bad spot, a bad position, and we had to chase the game after that," said D.C. coach Peter Nowak. "There was no connection between the midfield line and our defense, and that's when Richmond had a lot of time on the ball and always found one guy who was free."
In fact, Richmond could have gone ahead less than a minute later, had United goalkeeper Troy Perkins not made a spectacular save on Tim Brown's goalbound piledriver from the top of the penalty box.
But United recovered their composure, and their class eventually proved itself. First Kovalenko earned a penalty kick that Christian Gomez converted with ease, and then Adu found space on the left touchline to dish up a low bouncing cross that Gomez volleyed home to kill the tie.
But the visitors were sorely tested by the Kickers' intensity, and felt grateful to head back up I-95 with a win this time.
"I guess I compare it to us going into the Chelsea game," said Simms. "We wanted to prove something to Chelsea just like Richmond wants to prove something to us. A lot of them feel like they can play in the MLS and they want to prove it."
"It was a good win," said Kovalenko. "Let's go home."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.