US Open Cup

USOC: The rivalry maker

Photo: Earl Gardner

Entering MLS, the Philadelphia Union had two local rivals: New York to the north and DC to the south.

In 2010, the I-95 enemies were blase at best and aloof at worst. The Red Bulls floated atop a terribly weak Eastern Conference and seemed uninterested in engaging with upstarts from Pennsylvania. DC United was horrible at soccer and perfectly content to prop up the Union from the basement.

The geography was there, the intercity dislike was there… but something on the field needed to jumpstart these rivalries.

New York

Against New York, that “something” was an Andrew Boyens challenge on Sebastien Le Toux in the 2010 US Open Cup. Down 2-1, the Union were surging behind Le Toux’s performance off the bench. In the 81st minute, Boyens came in late on Le Toux and sent the attacker off on a stretcher.

It was the type of play that can end a career. Luckily it just ignited a rivalry.

DC United

DC United has been an even better US Open Cup rival. After knocking the Union out in 2011, they were favored to do the same a year later, only for Antoine Hoppenot’s overtime winner to send the underdogs through. Chippy play, highlighted by old friends Michael Farfan and Perry Kitchen nearly coming to blows, raised the level of a sputtering rivalry. Clearly the fans and the players agree on this one: Philly doesn’t like DC, and DC doesn’t like Philly.

John Hackworth said at Tuesday’s weekly press conference, “[DC United head coach Ben Olsen] and I were joking in preseason, we can’t figure out why our teams get so emotionally charged against each other.”

Whatever the reason, the rivalry is real enough for Hackworth to add, “I would be surprised if we finish tomorrow 11 v. 11.”

It’s easy enough to see what Hackworth means. In the two previous Open Cup meetings between DC and the Union, nine yellow cards and three red cards were shown. Peter Nowak was also ejected from the 2011 game for excessive celebration.

Kansas City

The win over DC in 2012 gave the Union a chance to face red hot Sporting Kansas City in the next round. Philly had embarrassed KC only days earlier with a 4-0 romp over the Eastern Conference favorites. With their season in shambles, the Union clearly wanted to use the Cup as a second chance to make something happen in 2012.

It was not to be. Kansas City snatched a late goal then held on to double the lead as Philly bombed forward looking for an equalizer. But that cup match stamped the finishing touches on a new rivalry for the Union. Now, few opponents will get PPL Park rocking like Sporting Kansas City.

Not a time to sleepwalk

This year, the Union don’t need a deep cup run to make up for a torrid regular season.

No, they need a deep cup run because they need to beat DC United. If they come through and New York defeats New England, the Red Bulls will come to PPL Park. Beating DC United while they are down is fun for the Union.

Knocking off New York when they’re riding high would be much, much better.

After losing the semifinal at home last year, Philadelphia has every reason to emphasize the US Open Cup and only one reason to treat it as an afterthought: Depth.

No depth, no excuses

This Philly team is not deep, or at least not deep in players the coach is willing to put on the pitch. A lengthy cup run puts that many more minutes on the legs of Jeff Parke, Brian Carroll, and Conor Casey. And it means fewer breaks during the dog days of the arduous MLS season.

But Philadelphia is a city that values its rivalries. And the US Open Cup is where rivalries are made in MLS. Talk to any player after any regular season match and you’re likely to hear, “It’s a long season. We take it one game at a time.”

Not true in the Cup. It’s a long 90—often 120—minutes. And it’s do or die.

Both teams know it and the short-term consequences of a loss make each tackle a personal affront, each opposing goal a moment of heartbreak, and each win a monumental victory.

No points, all pride

The 2013 US Open Cup might not give the Union a chance to build new rivalries. Instead it should let them renew old ones.

A win won’t show up in the standings, but it will be present in the club’s pride. It is a pride wounded by a tumultuous 2012, now slowly being rebuilt by the players left out in the cold by the last manager.

And it is a pride that, like all sporting emotions, swells largest against rivals. DC United is a rival desperately in need of a win.

The Union could easily see Wednesday’s match against a weak opponent as a chance to take their foot off the pedal. Coming off a dominating win over Columbus, it might feel like things are finally coming together. Remember: Only weeks ago the wheels were coming off following what Game of Thrones fans might call the Red Ninety in Montreal.

The hallmark of young teams is inconsistency; the calling card of winners is the ability to treat every game like an intense rivalry.

Two US Open Cup matches. One loss on penalties. One overtime win.

DC United is a rival. DC United needs a win. Here, finally, after three months of finding their feet, is a chance for the Philadelphia Union to show they’ve grown up. That means the young foundation that has, Jack Mac aside, fluctuated in form all year. That means the first time head coach who lost to this same DC team in his inaugural game in charge.

In the cup you only get 90 mentally trying minutes. Are the Union ready?

For more background, check out our post, The Union and the US Open Cup.

One Comment

  1. The quarterfinal against NY would be 3 days AFTER the nationally televised league game at PPL Park. Emotions will be fresh and the blood will be still be flowing.

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