SANDY, Utah – There are moments that define a team, for good or for ill.
For this Real Salt Lake side, who just penned the latest entry in their big book of almosts, that moment came in the 80th minute, in the form of a hard-charging goalkeeper and a stunned, silent crowd.
Álvaro Saborío was in alone on Bill Hamid, in alone on the end of a hopeful Ned Grabavoy header, in alone in a spot where he’s made a living burying chances at every level of play for club and country.
Sabo missed, of course. More to the point, Hamid made himself huge and produced his best save of the night.
Then it happened again 15 minutes later. Hamid made himself big, Saborío’s header hit his knee, bounced off the woodwork, and out. And the whistle sounded.
Heartbreak in the high desert.
That’s the kind of thing that happens to RSL in these games. They were the aggressor, just as they had been against New York in 2008, against Monterrey in 2011 and against Seattle in last year’s playoffs.
They had the ball, they had the play, they had openings to create chances, and enough daylight to take one or two.
But they didn’t.
Here are three things we learned from D.C. United’s remarkable 1-0 triumph in the final of the 100th edition of the US Open Cup:
United came to play the rope-a-dope
They didn’t float like a butterfly, and they stung like a bee only once. But that was enough.
The key was the way they kept their shape, defending in banks of four with Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario (the forwards) trying – and mostly succeeding – to funnel play either wide to force crosses or directly into the defensive midfield, where Perry Kitchen and John Thorrington ate up everything that came their way.
Look at the map of Thorrington's defensive interventions:
This was a coming of age performance from Kitchen, by the way. Not just defensively, but also in the way his distribution was calm and direct when he found the ball. It was his pass that opened up the field of play to create the goal – his direct, splitting ball that found Lewis Neal to spray wide to Thorrington.
Watch, at the start of the highlight, how wide open Neal is (the highlight begins after Kitchen's pass):
D.C. didn't have a lot of chances to make plays like that. It's easy, when you're on the back foot the whole game, to fall into the bad habit of the backpass.
Kitchen didn't. His team won because of it.
No ghosts allowed on the outside
RSL have made a living by slipping their wide midfielders around the outside backs after an overload and quick combination play, and within three minutes they did exactly that.
I don’t remember the exact build-up, but I’m pretty sure it was Joao Plata to Javier Morales to Plata to Grabavoy, and only a timely, last-second bump from a recovering James Riley threw the RSL man off his stride. It was a carbon copy of this play:
During “normal” play – i.e., before RSL went to the 2-3-5 “kitchen sink” attack, that was the only time RSL were dangerous from final third possession. Every other scary moment for D.C. happened when they came out of their shell and the hosts had time to build through a spaced out midfield.
So back into the shell United went, and there they stayed.
No fulcrum in the RSL attack
Dejan Jakovic has had a tough year, and the ROI for his natural talent has been very, very low in 2013.
But this game, as it turns out, was right in his wheelhouse. He was able to drop his line of confrontation into his own box, and turn the game into a wrestling match with Saborío.
In “normal play”, Jakovic won the battle, and that meant RSL couldn’t play to the center forward’s feet. When you can take that away from them, they become far, far less threatening – they don’t pull you in as fast, force you to scramble back into position, and rip you apart with passes. They have to work around the edges and kill you with artistry, instead of artistry and geometry. It's a very, very hard ask.
RSL didn't have an answer on Tuesday. Jakovic’s battle allowed D.C. to win the war.
And the trophy.