The Brotherly Game talked with former MLSsoccer.com D.C. United beat reporter Travis M. Clark ahead of tonight's US Open Cup game against the Philadelphia Union. The current Top Drawer Soccer writer talked about various topics involving United and the USOC.
The Brotherly Game: D.C. United sits atop the Eastern Conference with 27 points from 15 games at the moment. Last year United barely missed the playoffs after a late push by Dwayne DeRosario propelled DC into sixth place in the East. What has gone so right for DC thus far in 2012?
Travis M. Clark: There isn't one single offseason move or improvement that has led to D.C. United's solid start. Rather, it's been an across the board improvement from front to back and improved play from the holdovers from 2011.more coming. Dwayne De Rosario (who won't be available for selection because of national team duty) has picked up after a slow start, while D.C. has goals coming from every part of the field. Hamdi Salihi is showing signs that he's worth the DP tag, while four players have scored at least four goals. Maicon Santos thus far has proven to be a player reborn after struggling with Toronto and FC Dallas last year. Perhaps the only thing separating D.C. from the label contender is inconsistency at the back line, although they've shown signs of progress back there with Brandon McDonald and Daniel Woolard.
tBG: Last year it was Andy Najar who sank the Union in an exciting game in DC (non-USOC). His long range screamer went past Union goalkeeper Frayd Mondragon, who was made to look like a rookie on the play despite his decades of experience. How has Najar played this year and what should be expected of him during DC's USOC run?
Travis: Najar's had an up-and-down start to the season. He was in some ways punished for success with the Honduran U23 national team, as his absence for the tournament saw the newly acquired Danny Cruz solidify the starting right midfield role during D.C.'s hot start. However, Cruz has since gone down with a hamstring injury and Najar has forced himself into the lineup, playing at times at right back (where he first played for the DCU Academy) and is now the incumbent starter on the right. There's no questioning his ability, as he's one of the most promising, dynamic attackers when at the top of his game. His ability to challenge defenders off the dribble can change the game for D.C., and he'll be out looking for his first goal of 2012 against the Union.
tBG: What's the reasoning behind DCU playing at the Soccerplex, which lacks the ability to stream any kind live video? It'll be two years in a row now that this matchup in the USOC won't be viewed by more than the few thousand that attend the game.
Travis: The Soccerplex has been D.C. United's U.S. Open Cup home for a number of years for some of the earlier round matches. Simply put, opening and hosting a match at RFK for mid-week Open Cup games has never been a giant draw. Even later round games -- take the semifinal against Columbus in 2010 -- drew only 3,411 at RFK Stadium. From there it's a numbers game, as the game day costs are high, and it's a more affordable venue. Along with that, the SoccerPlex is a fun place for fans to come and watch a game close to the action in a small, intimate venue.
tBG: How much would beating the Union en route to a deep run in the competition mean to DC? How much would winning the Cup mean to the franchise?
Travis: Obviously the ties run deep between the Union and D.C. right now, with Freddy Adu and Peter Nowak, plus Alecko Eskandarian and Josh Gros coming to town. This marks another chapter in the growing regional rivalry, and it would certainly be nice to beat the Union along the way. That said, capturing the trophy would allow D.C. to embark once again into international competition, something that has eluded them since last competing in the CONCACAF Champions League in 2009, and Ben Olsen said that he's going out to win this thing. Then of course, D.C. has won 12 trophies across all competitions in their history, and trophy No. 13 has proved to be elusive over the past four years, so the U.S. Open Cup provides the opportunity to end the skid.
tBG: Is there a feeling this season that the league provides the better of the two opportunities to win a trophy?
Travis: I don't think so. The league is a difficult road to navigate, and while D.C. is leading the standings, there's plenty of teams within striking range and United has several games in hand on most teams in the East. Then of course, there's the challenge of successfully navigating through the playoffs and winning MLS Cup/Supporters' Shield.Conversely, winning the U.S. Open Cup would require only four more wins, a smaller mountain to climb.
tBG: What lineup should be expected out of DC tonight?
Travis: I'd expect to see a strong lineup from D.C. tonight. With the lengthy break in action provided by the league schedule, Tuesday's matchup is an opportunity to keep the first teamers sharp. Look for Hamdi Salihi, Maicon Santos, Branko Boskovic to be among those in the starting lineup, as well as No. 1 'keeper Bill Hamid. The combination of a desire to win and a chance to give the first team a run out should tip the scales in favor of a strong lineup.