Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images
The stats say they were the worst team in MLS history. The history books say they won a trophy.
D.C. United hasn’t offered up too many great underdog stories over the years. There have been trophies won as the clear favorite, or as the team that clearly got hot enough to be somewhere on the list of contenders. In 1996 and 2004 it was the latter; in 1997 and 1999 it was the former. United has never had a team barely qualify for MLS Cup only to suddenly come to life in the playoffs. If anything, years like 2006, 2007, and 2018 give credence to the idea that United is more likely to be a potential contender that stumbles than they are a true underdog.
There are some other trophies in the cabinet that required a surprise. 1998’s international victories over Deportivo Toluca and Vasco da Gama were upsets, to be sure, but the entire CONCACAF Champions Cup was held as a set of four double-headers at RFK Stadium, and both legs of the Copa Interamericana were held in the US. Those are special stories, but they’re not huge underdog stories.
However, there’s one success that cannot be rationally explained. One year, an indisputably bad version of the Black-and-Red still managed to spring a series of upsets and walk off with a trophy. For SB Nation’s Underdog week, here’s a look back at D.C. United winning the 2013 U.S. Open Cup.
In 2012, United had a classic “we wuz robbed” ending to their quest for a first MLS Cup appearance since 2004. A veteran-heavy team had brought some hope back to the District, but “luxury players” Branko Boskovic and Hamdi Salihi needed replacing, as did homegrown star Andy Najar. D.C. tried to do the smart thing in pursuing players with potential, looking to Rafael Gladiador, Raphael Augusto, and Marcos Sanchez to give Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Pontius some support up front.
March saw a conservative side post some very normal results for an MLS team: a late goal handing Houston a win in the opener, a dour 1-0 home win over Real Salt Lake, a 0-0 draw against the Red Bulls in New Jersey, and Columbus spoiling a glorious strike from Rafael Gladiador on his debut by winning 2-1 at RFK. It wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but it was well within the range of expectations for a regular MLS team. Maybe Gladiador would start banging them in after that thunderbolt, maybe De Ro would get hot, and so on.
And then things went straight to hell. Between poor play and a concussion, Rafael never scored again in MLS, and his loan from Bahia was cut short by the summer. Augusto and Sanchez made no impact, and it was becoming abundantly clear that the 2012 group had caught lightning in a bottle. Everyone that performed to their absolute ceiling last year had come back down to earth, or got injured, or both.
That loss to the Crew was the start of a seven-game losing streak. United took just two points in three months, and only managed to score 6 goals in the 12 games they played in that span. Even when United produced an even remotely adequate performance, they’d get hit with some kind of bad luck and lose anyway. And then, when things appeared at their worst, the club opted to sign an out-of-shape, years-past-his-prime Carlos Ruiz, perhaps the most loathed villain in MLS history. The team was bad, and unlucky, and now they were fielding a player the fanbase actively disliked.
The season was effectively over before summer started. There was only one important game left.
A reliable Open Cup truism is that MLS teams — despite rotating aggressively and with many clubs bordering on institutional hostility towards the competition — have generally managed to win 3 out of every 4 games against USL competition. No matter how much the lower-division side wanted it, a sleepwalking MLS team was the team you’d want to put your money on.
However, the Richmond Kickers had pushed last year’s far better version of DCU into extra time, and were looking for revenge. They’d knocked the Black-and-Red out of the tournament back in 2004. They were regular contenders for the USL title, with a respected head coach, a lineup full of experienced, solid players, and an institutional tradition of winning cup matches over supposedly bigger clubs. They also happened to have Andrew Dykstra and Michael Seaton, both on loan from United, in their lineup.
The last thing this United squad needed was to be paired with this kind of USL opposition.
Maybe 100 United fans gathered at one end of a muggy City Stadium to ruefully hope for the season to continue to have any sort of meaning. What they got was…certainly a game of soccer. On just two days rest after a 2-0 home loss to Portland, United dominated possession but, as had been the case all season, were toothless up front. Joe Willis had to stop at least one Seaton breakaway — somehow US Soccer allowed loanees to play against their parent club — and the teams were scoreless at full time.
That pattern continued in extra time, even with United introducing Pontius and Ruiz off the bench. In the 113th minute, the bad news finally came: Chris Korb picked up a second yellow card for a late tackle, and United would finish with ten men.
This is how the 2013 season was supposed to end: a tired, demoralized, 10-man United would give up one too many set pieces in the final minutes, and Richmond would have a win to rib their friends from up 95 about for years to come. D.C. would be staring down 22 hopeless regular season games with nothing to do but plan for 2014. With plans for a stadium still very uncertain, there was the possibility that this was the beginning of the end.
Richmond, however, couldn’t do their part. The Kickers had been chasing the ball all night, and the brutal humidity had left them too tired to actually go on and win the game. The fates, alarmed at what was unfolding, handed them another favor: Ruiz would get himself sent off in the 117th minute, leaving United with the following group on the field when it was time to take spot kicks:
The two teams trudged to midfield as much out of duty as anything else; rather than feeling like high drama, the shootout had the air of two teams that just wanted to be allowed to shower up and go home. Two United goalkeepers set up by the northeast goal at City Stadium, one trying to help his team win, and one perversely being asked to ruin the last glimmer of hope his employer had for the year.
The only reason we have a story to tell here is that Willis would build on his reputation as a penalty kick specialist here, saving shots from Kickers legend Sascha Görres and former United forward Joseph Ngwenya. A D.C. team that couldn’t score to save their lives in 2013 somehow converted all four of their attempts, with De Rosario, Kitchen, DeLeon, and Riley doing the honors. Despite their best efforts, United had earned themselves one more important game.
The “victory” in Richmond didn’t change much of anything for United. Perhaps to reward the group that finally avoided defeat, Ben Olsen retained 9 of his 11 starters from the Kickers game four days later on the road against Chicago, but United continued being totally allergic to scoring. They lost 2-0 to the Fire, and then posted another 0-0 draw against the Revolution the weekend after. When United kicked off their Open Cup fourth round clash against the Union, they had not scored in 415 minutes of play across all competitions.
As such, the expectations were that Philly and D.C. would have their traditionally contentious cup match, someone would get sent off, and the Union would do what Richmond hadn’t. Sure, the 2013 Union were a shrug of a team that would go on to miss the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference, but United was 1W-3D-10L in MLS on the night this game started. Just about everyone expected that this was it for the season.
Instead, United produced their first remotely effective attacking performance of the entire year. De Rosario broke the scoreless streak in the first half, then made it 2-0 in the 75th minute. The universe once again trried to correct itself, with United forced to make multiple subs to deal with defensive injuries. The Union made it 2-1 immediately after De Ro’s second, and then within a minute of that, Sebastien Le Toux — perhaps the ultimate cup specialist in MLS history — found himself with a sitter from 8 yards out.
In 2013, when United gave up this kind of chance, it was a goal 99 out of 100 times. You could see how things would play out. United, having seen their only 2-0 lead of the year up to that point dissolve in a matter of about three minutes, would crumble. Philly would surely go on to score a late winner. All Le Toux had to do was side-foot home from 8 yards at the back post. Willis wasn’t going to get there. No defender had a chance of making a block.
Le Toux whiffed.
Having defied the fates, United even dared to score a third goal. A desperately unlucky team would get a rare gift, with a Union giveaway while Zac MacMath was out of his goal allowed De Rosario to cap his hat trick with a shot from about 50 yards out. The worst team in MLS was moving on to the quarterfinals.
Anyone thinking that a cup win over an MLS team would change DCU’s stars in the league was disabused of that notion quickly. United lost at home to a comically bad Toronto FC side (this being years before the Big Bloody Deal, they’d finish the season with a woeful 29 points), though at least De Ro managed another goal.
After 13 tries, United did finally end their MLS winless run in their next outing, beating San Jose 1-0 on a Pontius penalty kick. No one believed that D.C. was going to go on a run and maybe have a shot at a playoff spot, but it was reasonable to hope that finally winning a league match would contribute to better morale for the cup.
That’s exactly how things played out the following Wednesday evening at the Plex. The Revolution played a nearly full-strength lineup, while Olsen dealt with a couple of new defensive knocks from the Quakes win, but for one night, it felt like 2012 again. United seemed confident and energetic, controlling play before Pontius made it 1-0 in the final seconds of the first half.
Juan Toja’s equalizer early in the second half would have normally rattled this version of United, but cup magic was starting to take hold. In MLS play, the Black-and-Red were a bundle of nerves; in the Open Cup, they just brushed it off and stuck to what had been working. De Rosario would score his 4th cup goal of the year (he’d finish the tournament with 5 goals in 5 games, a stark contrast with his league total of 3 in 24), and Lionard Pajoy calmly converted a late penalty. 3-1 at home is a pretty normal scoreline in soccer, but in 2013, it was a high water mark for United.
Vancouver came to RFK and beat United 1-0 on the weekend, and normal service resumed. Seattle would beat D.C. 2-0 a week later on the west coast, and the best result between cup matches was a 0-0 draw in Colorado. The Revs came to RFK and got revenge with a 2-1 win. There was also a friendly against Chivas Guadalajara, in which Ruiz did his best impression of De Ro’s cup form by playing his one and only good game in a United shirt.
Most importantly, though, United went to Illinois and got bodied by the Fire. Chris Rolfe scored in the 2nd minute. By the 11th minute, it was 2-0, Rolfe made it 3-0 before the half was over, and Chicago would win 4-1 on the day. It wasn’t even as close as that indicates.
With this game fresh in the mind, it felt like this was going to be where the party ended. United fans had already lived through this recently, as the miserable 2010 season included a cup run that was shut down by Columbus at this stage of the tournament. It made perfect sense. Sure, United would head into the cup rematch by beating Montreal 3-1 at home (the only time they’d score more than 2 goals in MLS play all season), but Chicago had dismantled United two weeks before this.
It’s also worth mentioning that United’s history in any sort of cup or playoff game against Chicago was brutal. Until 2005, the Fire were the only team to ever eliminate United in the MLS playoffs. Their habit of constantly calling themselves the “Kings of the Cup” was irritating, but they had the facts on their side: 4 Open Cup titles, and a bunch of deep runs in the years they didn’t go home with the hardware.
And yet, with all available evidence pointing to this being the end of the ride, United found themselves in a competently played, very even 0-0 game in the 44th minute. It was nice to see United as a real participant in a soccer game rather than being hopelessly out-matched, but 2013 had taught D.C. fans to expect disaster. The other shoe always dropped.
That mistake arrived right on cue…but it happened in front of the wrong goal. Sean Johnson claimed a looping cross, but instead of controlling the ball, he brought it down right onto Luis Silva’s head. De Rosario pounced, touching the inexplicably loose ball to the left before steering it home. Johnson and Bakary Soumare both laughably appealed for a foul, but United had a lead. The worst United team ever were 45 minutes from a final.
If you polled the fanbase during halftime, you’d wouldn’t have found too many people actually expecting to get to that final, though. There had to be a calamity, right? This team couldn’t possibly win a road cup semifinal against their bogey team. Someone would get a red card without actually fouling, or a bad backpass would gift Chicago an equalizer. A weather front would move in and force the whole game to be replayed. This couldn’t be happening, could it?
Instead, the cup stayed weird. United jumped all over Chicago to start the half, and within 3 minutes DeLeon made it 2-0. A team that couldn’t find any sort of belief in the league nearly added a third soon thereafter, with Johnson having to produce a couple great saves just to keep the Fire in the game. Kitchen and Riley cleared a couple of late shots off the line, providing examples of the kind of big play that United never, ever got in the regular season that year, and that was that. The Fire broadcast called for roughly 3 years of stoppage time, but Jair Marrufo had a functioning watch, and United killed the final moments off like this had been the plan all along.
The Black-and-Red earned their place in the final on August 7, and then had nearly eight weeks to wait before they could play another consequential game. There was no respite when it came to MLS. That win over the Impact just before the semifinal was United’s last league win of 2013. The sturdy, respectable performance in Bridgeview was followed by 6 losses in the next 8 games, all deserved. United scored just 7 goals during that stretch, and even lost to the worst-ever version of Chivas USA at one point. Things were dire.
Fandom is inherently irrational, but so was this United team. The temptation to expect another very good performance in the cup is a fun bit of superstition, and maybe even an illusion we can sell ourselves in the moment. Realistically, though, United took the field having won 6 competitive games in 34 attempts in 2013. With the Kickers game going into the record books as a draw, the semifinal victory against Chicago was the only road win of the bunch. There was no reason to believe.
RSL, meanwhile, was one of the best home teams in MLS, with only 3 home losses on the year. They would eventually miss out on the Supporters Shield by 3 points, and lost MLS Cup only after a 10-round shootout. There’s a genuine home field advantage that goes beyond their fans, too, as Sandy, Utah is at a high enough elevation that visiting teams struggle to keep up for 90 minutes. Even a very strong MLS team would have been considered an underdog on the day.
United made no bones about what they were there to do. A season of evidence that an open, progressive style of play wasn’t going to succeed with this group left little choice. Everyone knew this would be the plan, but no one really expected it to work long enough to matter.
And yet, time kept ticking away, and Bill Hamid wasn’t being challenged. It became the 10th minute, and then the 20th, and the inevitable RSL goal hadn’t happened. The inevitable big chance hadn’t even happened. This wasn’t pure, blind luck. United was actually succeeding in shutting this game down.
Nothing was happening, and it was beautiful. In something bordering on a miracle, a group that couldn’t avoid shooting itself in the foot on a weekly basis was actually starting to look comfortable stopping the best passing team in American men’s soccer at the time. All season long, this United side alternated between being collectively bad, or having individual players make costly mistakes, and here they were showing poise, discipline, and focus.
None of that guaranteed a win, though, and we’ve all seen weaker teams try to do this only to be undone by the sheer quantity of time the opponent has with the ball. If you knock for long enough, the door usually opens. It’s not like this was new territory for either team, either. United had spent plenty of time in 2013 trying to make sure a soccer game didn’t break out, and RSL had spent plenty of games trying to pick the lock. D.C. had been conditioned to expect something to go wrong all year, while RSL had every reason to stay the course.
Normally you can fall back on a cliche, like “goals change games,” but in this case, the change was a simple shift in mood. Salt Lake wanted to get to halftime and hit the reset button. The game wasn’t working like it was supposed to, but there was still plenty of time to get the job done. We’ve all seen teams become just a bit too frustrated that their dominance isn’t being rewarded, and this was a textbook case.
Home fans were starting to have time to think back on recent history, and this is where RSL might have been a bit vulnerable. In the prior year’s Open Cup, they lost at home to a non-MLS opponent in the Minnesota Stars, and were later eliminated from the playoffs thanks to a home loss against Seattle. The year before that, they managed a 2-2 away draw in the CONCACAF Champions League final only to lose the second leg in Utah.
But this is still an attempt to explain the inexplicable. United had played teams with far better reasons to lose all year, and they had a string of shutout defeats to show for it. Mild irritation doesn’t explain a team famed for its rotations in midfield watching John Thorrington peel out wide without any attempt to track him or pressure Lewis Neal on the ball. It’s not reasonable to expect Thorrington, in his final season as a pro, to be able to get out of a 1v2 against more athletic players and put in a cross. A season full of bad bounces shouldn’t have also seen United get one absolutely perfect bounce right now, of all times.
And yet, there it was: Thorrington’s cross skipped off of Carlos Salcedo’s foot, then hit his back, a sequence that he probably couldn’t replicate perfectly if he tried. It had just enough velocity to allow for Neal to ping a one-timer past Salcedo’s attempt to prevent a shot. If it’s a little further towards the center of the box, Sebastian Velasquez probably makes a block. If it’s a little softer, Salcedo gets there in time. If it had rebounded further, it wouldn’t have been in Neal’s stride, and who can say how having to alter his approach to the ball would have affected his shot?
But like any great underdog story, everything turned out just right. Neal’s nimble shot wasn’t blocked, and Nick Rimando couldn’t teleport all the way across the goal in an instant. RSL 0, United 1.
For the third straight cup halftime, United had made it 1-0 seconds before the break. And for the third straight cup halftime, those dueling notions were on everyone’s mind: This team is bad. They do not win games. They can’t win this game. There’s no way.
But also: They’re doing what they set out to do. They’re winning this game. This is happening right now.
But like we just discussed, everything still had to turn out just right. What if Velasquez’s shot off the bar early in the second half is a foot lower? If that effort ends up under the crossbar rather than clipping it, it’s 1-1, and even in these implausible circumstances, it’s impossible to imagine 2013 D.C. United scoring another goal. It’s also very easy to picture RSL going on and getting a second goal once they had their breakthrough. Hell, it’s easy to imagine them adding a third. This team was bad, and knew exactly how to lose this kind of game.
Instead, the fragile lead held. Hamid robbed future teammate Alvaro Saborio on a close-range chance. Korb managed a perfect tackle on Ned Grabavoy just as the latter set to shoot from 8 yards. Even when players made mistakes, they recovered: Dejan Jakovic’s sliced clearance attempt in the 90th minute nearly gave it all away, but there he was moments later, intervening a split-second before Devon Sandoval could have a shot on an unguarded net.
The mix of big plays, little plays, and luck was something that was missing all season long, but here they were. That’s what makes this United’s greatest underdog story: it simply defies all explanation. All season long, this team was both the worst version of itself, and the team that could not catch a break. The evidence, the data, the eyeball test, the circumstances, all of it pointed to United never even getting to the final, much less winning it. Every team United faced in the 2013 Open Cup should have liked their chances. Every team had at least one golden opportunity to knock United out. Every team they faced should have been the winner.
Somehow, that trophy ended up coming back to the District.