The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup provides the opportunity for smaller, second, third or even sometimes fourth division soccer teams to take on the teams from the top domestic soccer league — Major League Soccer (MLS) — we have here in the United States in a one-and-done style tournament. It’s the closest thing in soccer that we have to the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, where early round upsets can happen and occasionally – a smaller club can make a deep run.
On Wednesday evening, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds will have that opportunity to play spoiler, and defeat a MLS team, as D.C. United come to Highmark Stadium for a fourth round Open Cup match before what is expected to be a capacity crowd.
Can the Riverhounds, of third division United Soccer League (USL), advance against the top team in the MLS’ Eastern Conference and the 2013 Open Cup victors?
Yes — it is possible – but their approach may be a little different than you might think.
Traditionally, teams that are a big underdog or playing against a far more skilled unit, that over-matched in terms of talent and athleticism, can hang in there if they play conservative, if they sit back — and keep a strong alignment of defenders and midfielders in a tight 8 or even 9-man defensive formation while looking to seize opportunities with timely counter attacks or hoping to get opportunistic goals from set pieces. In tournament play, this strategy can work and often times trying to stretch the game to the full 120 minutes — and get the contest to go to penalty kicks where anything can happen.
But with this Riverhounds team — a team that has led the USL in offensive output (league leading 27 goals) — and has also conceded the most goals in USL play — they might be best suited to play to their strengths — and let it all hang out.
That’s when they are at their best.
All you have to do is look at some of their second half performances at home this year. Three different times they blitzed their opponents with multiple goal outbursts – including a six goal, come-from-behind 6-5 win in what’s become known as “Miracle on the Mon”, against Keystone Derby rivals Harrisburg City Islanders on May 30.
The current Riverhounds Head Coach Mark Steffens, a USL Hall of Fame Coach that has led his teams to two championships — and nine title game appearances – was in a similar spot a few years ago in the USL Championship game with the Charlotte Eagles.
Facing the daunting task of trying to beat a juggernaut Orlando City team that brought back players like C.J. Sapong and Dom Dwyer from MLS Sporting Kansas City after they left Orlando — and had mostly been rolling through the USL playoffs, Steffens and his staff decided to go for it.
The result was one of the wildest games in USL history — a 7-4 Orlando win. It was a back and forth affair. Playing with a “nothing-to-lose” mentality, on the road before over 15,000 fans the Eagles pushed the tempo, brought a lot of high pressure and for about 60 minutes controlled the match.
Sure enough, the Eagles were smelling upset as they took the lead after 20 minutes, then fought back for the equalizer just before half-time to make it 2-2 following Dwyer’s first score (of four!), and then went in front again early in the second period. That was when Orlando finally imposed their will and in eight minutes provided a three goal knockout, with two more from Dwyer and one from local product Dennis Chin. A few more goals followed — but in all it provided a memorable and entertaining game.
And now Steffens is steering the Riverhounds as they face a D.C. United team that has conceded just 16 goals in 17 MLS games thus far this season. One of United’s strengths is their depth and experience in most positions with a roster assembled by their General Manager, Pittsburgh native Dave Kasper. They are especially deep in their back line as they’ve had six different defenders start at least eight games.
But maybe, just maybe, the Riverhounds are catching the United at a good time – and in a week where they may want to rest some of their key players.
The United have struggled of late with injuries and player losses. After blazing 6-1-3 start to their season including four shutouts, they’ve gone 2-4-1 since, losing on 1-0 on Sunday against the now MLS version Orlando City team led by the legendary Brazilian midfielder Kaka, who scored the game winner.
The United, three-time Open Cup Champs, have been without numerous regular starters, as defender Sean Franklin, attacker Chris Pontius and midfielder Michael Farfan sat out the Orlando City game. Midfielder Markus Halsti was also away playing in Euro 2016 qualifier for his home country Finland.
The Riverhounds will look to capitalize with a rare home game against an MLS team. This season, the Hounds are 3-1-3 this season, and in three years of Open Cup play, they are riding an unbeaten five game streak at Highmark Stadium.
Against MLS in Open Cup play over the years, the Hounds are 1-4. But that one win was the only other time they’ve hosted a MLS team – beating the Colorado Rapids 2-0 in 2001 at Bethel Park Stadium. They had previously lost to D.C. United, 2-1, at Maryland Soccer Park in 2003. Most recently, last June, they lost 2-1 in a storm-shortened match at Chicago that had multiple weather delays.
Still, Pittsburgh’s back line which has struggled at times – giving up a league high 23 goals –will have their hands full with quality attackers that the United can throw at them, including their top scorer this season, Jairo Arrieta (5 goals), Pontius, Fabian Espindola and Colin Rolfe, depending on who gets the start.
It will be interesting to see what type of line-up D.C. United Head Coach Ben Olsen will feature with a quick turnaround from a 1-0 loss on Sunday, and with the fact he’s mostly been successfully juggling lineups.
The Riverhounds, who lead USL with 27 goals, have played well in games that have had uptempo pace and by playing with a lot of high pressure in a 4-2-3-1 attacking formation. But they will also have to match possession. It will have to a top notch game played by their pair of holding midfielders – Stephen Okai and captain Danny Earls to orchestrate and maintain enough control of the ball in the middle of the field against some of the best midfielders they will face all year. Lebo Moloto was injured in their loss at Charlotte on Saturday, so the attacking midfielder role could be shifted to Rob Vincent – and Steffens might opt to put new Serbian acquisition Boris Zivanovic to the flank.
The Riverhounds best chance to win may come with looking to catch the United off guard early in the match. Vincent and Kevin Kerr have done that a lot this year.
The U.K. tandem of Vincent (Liverpool, England) and Kerr (Bielefeld, Scotland) on the wings, have been able to catch a lot of teams by surprise with their ability to find each other and opening in defenses, as they’ve been given a lot of freedom to operate in the attack. Vincent leads the USL in goals (9), and Kerr has been equally as productive (5 goals, 5 assists).
One of the keys might be to see how the always energetic Kerr handles whoever Olsen decides to start at left outside back. The Scottish native has been relentless most of the season is tracking down balls, and creating opportunities from the right side of the field.
Vincent has shown that when he is within the vicinity of the goal – particularly 35 yards and in – he is a legitimate threat to score. For the most part, most of the rest of the Pittsburgh attackers this year have been solid complementary components. Steffens has utilized a combination of target forwards, mostly Vini Dantas, Miro Cabrilo and last game he went with Fejiro Okiomah who normally has played in central defense. It was Okiomah, playing for Steffens previously, who scored a goal in that memorable Charlotte-Orlando City USL 2013 Final.
The Hounds will look to get forward and bring numbers in the attack, including their speedy outside backs – particularly the young left footed Canadian Tyler Pasher. This may open things up too much – as they could be vulnerable to counter attacks from the United. The Hounds have been playing this way all year, so there’s no reason that they will change things too much.
The Riverhounds chances for winning might have been even greater with Ryan Thompson in goal, but their primary starter is in Chile, with his national team, Jamaica at the Copa America tournament. The goalkeeper duties are left among the remaining players, Columbus Crew loanee Matt Lampson, Ryan Hulings or Calle Brown, who’s been injured for much of the season since his only start against Richmond in early May.
Ultimately, all of the cards will have to fall into place during the course of the match for the Riverhounds, but an upset is still possible.
Olsen will also have the luxury of bringing on some of his top players he might prefer to rest if they need a late goal. Two years ago under Olsen’s direction with a more inferior squad, and having won only three times in MLS play, the United still made a run all the way to hoist the Cup. Strange things can happen in Open Cup play. While all signs point to the fact that they should be savvy enough to get the result and avoid an upset here in Pittsburgh — the Riverhounds will have something to say about that.
Here’s hoping that they go all out in doing so. That would be a lot more fun to watch.