Tampa Bay Sports Day

DC United wears down Rochester 2-1

DC United maneuvered their way through another treacherous bunker defense by a lower level side Tuesday night with a 2-1 win over the Rochester Rhinos in a U.S. Open Cup semi-final match but not without paying an unfortunate price.

Bouncing balls and the inability to efficiently break through these bunkers are continuous concerns for the defending U.S Open Cup champions. United will take on the Seattle Sounders FC, who defeated Houston 2-1 late Tuesday, on September 2nd at RFK Stadium in hopes of defending their U.S. Open Cup title from a year ago.

After scoring the game winning goal in the 82nd minute, Boyzzz Khumalo broke his wrist when a clearance from goalkeeper Tim Melia struck him squarely from short range.

Just after Rochester had drawn level in the 68th minute, Darren Kenton suffered a horrific ankle injury that drew concern from all witnesses. Kenton’s ankle was rolled back following a hard challenge from
John DiRaimondo and the interpretation of its legality were split down back black and gold lines.

“It was a fair challenge. John went in hard and I think the challenge was fair. Unfortunately, the result wasn’t good. There was no egregiousness on John’s part. He was out to win the ball,” said United boss Tom Soehn.

Rochester coach Darren Tilley had a different perspective and his thoughts about referee Abbey Okulaja. “When a referee gives a penalty, he has to be so, so sure because it changes the game. And certainly now with challenges, he has to be so sure when he sends players off or gives yellow cards. He gives yellow cards for arguing with him and a leg breaking challenge he waves off. I just don’t get it.”

Okulaja had given Andrew Gregor a yellow card for dissent in the 18th minute after giving him what appeared to be multiple warnings.

Jaime Moreno scored on a penalty kick to give United a well deserved lead just a few minutes before halftime prompted by a handball by Ty Harden that also raised Tilley’s dander.

“You could tell right from the beginning that they didn’t want any correspondence whatsoever,” said Tilley. “Even on the penalty, five of my players say it hit him in the chest and three DC players are laughing and giggling so that tells a story in itself.”

Regardless, United’s superior skill and savvy eventually took over despite the perfectly executed game plan by Tilley’s side.

“We played very well but don’t take anything away from DC. There were moments where they ripped us apart with their passing,” said Tilley. “They are a class above but we battled really, really hard to get back into it and it was taken away.”

Moreno captained the side that also included Fred in the midfield with Bryan Namoff in his standard right back slot alongside Greg Janicki in the middle with Avery John manning the left.

Khumalo actually started the match favoring the middle of the park with Moreno in tandem with Ange N’Silu up top. That setup did not work particularly well, so Fred slid inside a bit more often with Khumalo working wider with Rodney Wallace and Devon McTavish interchanging in the midfield as well. Andrew Jacobson was also very effective in the holding midfield spot finding open spaces to support United’s ball possession.

As they customarily do, United dominated possession as it begs to do but created few legitimate scoring opportunities as they were constantly forcing play through the crowded middle of the park.

“In the first half I don’t think we did a good job of moving the ball around. We didn’t change the point of attack. You saw what their tactics were. They played very defensive and clogged the middle and we kept playing into the middle,” said Soehn.

“In the second half we opened them up a little bit and chances come when you start doing that, getting service in the box. These games are never easy when teams pack it in, and it’s been three in a row that we’ve had to do that, and eventually we’ll get good at it.”

“We forced it too much toward the middle,” concurred Moreno. “They were pretty compact in the middle and I don’t think we played enough through the channels like the coach wanted. We tried to break them down through the middle, and we knew it was going to be tough, but for some reason we forced it too much. But at the end of the day, we won and that’s all that matters.”

The cooler temperatures and low humidity, atypical for this time of year in the Washington area, coupled with a few minutes of rain near halftime, gave Moreno a good opportunity to play deeper in the match than expected.

Though Harrisburg (USL-2) chose to come out and play more than Rochester or Ocean City in their previous U.S. Open Cup wins, that method is the standard to slow DC down in these matches where they are typically not starting first team players across the board.

“It’s still a challenge to break teams down that pack it in. You don’t get as many chances as you’d like, and we played into that a little too much,” Soehn continued. “When teams do that you want to get the ball to the opposite side and swing in balls and get on the end of them. I was disappointed first half, second half we did a little bit better job.”

During a sequence just a quarter hour into the second half, United held the ball for upwards of two minutes with a string of over two-dozen sharp passes, moving it crisply from side to side with a definitive purpose. The result was Chris Pontius’, who came on for Moreno only moments earlier, being just a step offside on a great angle ball through the right channel.

Pontius had a hand in the clinching goal as Rhino central defender Kenney Bertz misplayed a bouncing ball originating out of United’s back line. Bertz, who otherwise was very effective, stepped up but the ball took a hard and fast bounce off the slightly wet turf allowing the superb rookie an uncontested breakaway that Melia did well to knock away. However, the rebound went directly to Khumalo who had alertly followed the play behind Pontius.

The bouncing balls are a definite concern for United with their margin for error shrinking as the stakes get higher and competition gets better as the season progresses.

Greg Janicki was constantly under pressure with long direct clearances or hopeful balls out of Rochester’s back line. He also had no answer for Colorado’s Conor Casey in their 3-1 home win last Saturday. The burly forward had his way with the tall but thin Janicki, with the Rapids early goal coming from a bouncing ball that forced the own goal from Namoff.

“Defensively we were alright but we let the ball bounce too much,” Janicki said. “A couple of them in the first half were just clearances when we were trying to push our line up and they were clearing them over my head so that is kind of my fault, I got pushed up too high and ended up running back on a ball which is never a good thing.”

Tai Atieno, another sizeable forward, also gave Janicki problems but that directness was part of the Rhino game plan. Atieno scored Rochester’s lone goal after United, including Janicki, couldn’t clear away a free kick from the right flank.

“Two waves of players and I cleared it and it kind of went off a guy’s back and it sat right down for Tai to knock it in the net. I guess it’s got to be a bit better clearance on my part,” Janicki said about the goal.