In a season that saw record lows for D.C. United, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup was a chance for glory, a chance to lift a trophy. The squad understood the stakes in Salt Lake City and seized the day. But the road to Rio Tinto started long before the club’s third U.S. Open Cup trophy was lifted on October 1, 2013.
More than four months earlier, on May 28, 2013, United faced off against its USL Pro affiliate Richmond Kickers in a match that led to penalty kicks after a 0-0 tie. It was DCU goalkeeper versus DCU goalkeeper: Joe Willis for the Black-and Red and Andrew Dykstra for the Kickers. Willis emerged victorious and D.C. United moved on to the round of 16.
In the next round, D.C. United against the Philadelphia Union proved a tough battle, but under the lights of the Maryland SoccerPlex and with the ever-faithful Black-and-Red fans, United pulled out a 3-1 win.
“It was nice to be in front in the first half,” said Dwayne De Rosario in a post-match interview. “That first goal set the tone.”
De Rosario went on to net a hat trick, memorably catching Zac MacMath off his line from just beyond the center circle to complete the trio.
“For the Cup, it’s huge. It’s huge for our fans, to give them a win,” he concluded.
The quarterfinals saw a determined D.C. side. Man of the match Chris Pontius recorded the first goal and the game-winning assist, finding De Rosario’s head on a corner kick. Lionard Pajoy added cushion with a PK, and the Cinderella story continued. D.C. United knocked the New England Revolution out by a score of 3-1.
“It’s huge for us,” Pontius said of moving onto the semis. “If anything, it can boost our confidence in MLS play. We have to use this to catapult us back up in the standings. It’s big for us.”
In the semifinals, the Black-and-Red visited the Chicago Fire, a team that had beaten United 2-0 earlier in the year. But this was Open Cup, and in Open Cup, United thrived. Goals from Nick DeLeon and De Rosario gave DCU the 2-0 win it needed to travel to Salt Lake City in October.
On that Tuesday, Rio Tinto Stadium was mostly claret red and cobalt blue, save for a distant corner of Black-and-Red. That’s all D.C. United needed, because it had conviction and heart.
Real Salt Lake, one of three teams United had beaten all year, was in top form, on its way to the MLS Cup Final. Both sides fielded their best starting eleven, hoping to hoist the trophy, enter into CONCACAF 2014-15 and earn allocation money.
The first half was a true battle, each team realizing the weight of the match. The Salt Lake fans, though loud, seemed complacent, as if a scoreless first half would still result in a surefire win by the final whistle. But as the seconds before halftime ticked down, John Thorrington cut by his defender and served the ball into the box. The cross took a deflection and bounced in front of Lewis Neal. With a confident approach, Neal put his head down and drove the ball into the net, or as Dave Johnson would say, “Lewis Neal! It’s in the net!”
Of course, there was still another half to play, and it was clear that a trophy was on the line. In the last few minutes of the match, it RSL seemed to find its offensive rhythm. But both Bill Hamid and the goal post came up with lead-protecting saves, and after what seemed like 90 more minutes, D.C. United were the 2013 U.S. Open Cup Champions.
“Relief, to be honest,” Neal responded when asked what he felt when the final whistle blew. “We’d been under like a barrage of attacks, and they looked like they were going to score, and they were really pushing for that goal. I was so thankful when that whistle blew and we’d won it. It was great.”
Neal and United were forever etched into Open Cup history. The Black-and-Red lifted a trophy, celebrated as a team and earned a championship in a season in which it had seemed improbable and perhaps impossible.
Watch D.C. United defend its 2013 title tonight at 7:05 pm vs. the Rochester Rhinos on dcunited.com/live