For 54 days, ever since D.C. United traveled to Toyota Park and eliminated Chicago from the US Open Cup, D.C. coach Ben Olsen and his staff have prepared for Tuesday night.
It has been the brightest beacon of hope amid an otherwise miserable season. And when United take the field against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium (9 pm ET, GolTV) for a chance to win their third Open Cup championship, they know they’ll again be the underdogs – as they’ve been for a majority of this season.
But the United team that takes the field in Open Cup play is the polar opposite of the MLS team this year. That, along with the slowly simmering motivation to win a championship during such a dismal season, has propelled a sense of hope and belief throughout D.C.’s locker room that runs counter to the club’s current eight-match MLS winless streak and 21 MLS losses.
“Not many people think we can win this game,” Olsen told reporters last week. “We’re up against it. They’re a great team in a tough place to play. But we don’t have a lot to lose. We have a little bit more hope and belief when it comes to the Open Cup and I think hopefully that will translate and we can give them a run for their money.”
Salt Lake, who have five times as many MLS wins as D.C., are one of the three teams United beat this year on the MLS slate, downing RSL 1-0 at RFK Stadium on March 9. They haven’t won a league match on the road this season, but did advance to the Open Cup final by blanking the Fire in Chicago 2-0.
“It’s not going to be easy by no means,” United captain Dwayne De Rosario, who has scored five goals in the Open Cup and three in MLS play, told MLSsoccer.com last week. “It’s pretty much one game that could put a lot of positivity into a season that’s been surrounded with a lot of learning opportunities.
"It’s a game I think we’re all taking very seriously and a game that we’re going in there to definitely get the win and hopefully we can hold that trophy up.”
United have outscored their opponents 8-2 in Open Cup play and, with a win Tuesday, they’ll have earned more Open Cup wins (four) than MLS victories (three) in 2013.
“If we knew what the difference was, then we wouldn’t be where we are in the league,” veteran midfielder John Thorrington told reporters last week of the difference in the team’s play between the competitions.
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Olsen rested his expected starters for Tuesday this weekend as his lesser-used players fell to Toronto 4-1. But that result matters little with regard to the match D.C.’s season been building toward for quite some time.
“You can start getting a bit ridiculous in how much you prepare for a team,” Olsen said. “It’s still soccer. It’s still, on the day, who makes plays. Hopefully we still have a couple guys who have those plays in them at both ends of the field. Then you still need a lucky bounce and you get out of there.
"The group is ready to go and ready for the challenge.”