SANDY, Utah — Nearing the end of a Major League Soccer season where nothing has seemed to go right for D.C. United, everything came together Tuesday night as they shocked Real Salt Lake 1-0 on their own field and took home the US Open Cup championship.
“We did a great job sticking together,” D.C. head coach Ben Olsen told reporters, joking about the victory Gatorade bath ruining his tie. “The wheels never fell off and there were a lot of times they could have.”
RSL came into the Open Cup final as heavy favorites, sitting near the top of the MLS table. On the flip side, United are mired at the bottom of the table and actually came into the match with more wins in this edition of the USOC tournament than league victories.
None of that mattered. Using a Lewis Neal goal right before halftime, D.C. hung on through a furious second-half onslaught by RSL to win the franchise’s third Open Cup title, and first hardware of any kind since 2008.
“It’s a huge confidence boost,” Neal told reporters. “We’re under no illusions that the season has been terrible from top to bottom. But for some reason in this cup, we’ve played really well.”
With their only road victories in 2013 coming in Open Cup play, it would have been understandable for Olsen and his team to be a bit surprised to come out a victor at one of the tougher places to play in MLS. But the coach knew his team would treat the final, and the Cup run as a whole, with a kind of fire they haven’t shown much of during the regular season.
“We took the Open Cup extremely seriously from the first game,” Olsen said. “Each game, our belief in the Open Cup grew. The size of the game helped us focus. Some of the guys who have a tough time focusing when it doesn’t matter really did what they needed to do.”
That focus paid off Tuesday night, and now the team can focus on what suddenly becomes a much less gloomy future. D.C.’s win secures a berth in the 2014-15 edition of the CONCACAF Champions League and gives them a champion's prize of $250,000 that can be used to bolster a squad that has collected a mere 15 points in league play.
“If we [had lost] this one, it’s back to the drawing board,” Olsen said. “Now we have a new energy about us to finish the season in the right way and look forward.”