It's tough to rise above the clatter of world soccer this time of year, which is laden with World Cup qualifiers, global transfer talk, MLS playoff chases, Premiership clashes and Mexican matches.
Somehow, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, with precious little marketing umph from parent organization U.S. Soccer, gets squeezed into the mix. It's a great little competition but one that sometimes looks like the smallest kid on the block, waiting to be picked for neighborhood games, jumping up and down to get noticed.
Too bad, too, because Wednesday's final in the 95-year-old tournament was a dandy. It's hard to say how many people tuned in to see the first MLS-USL title clash since 1999. (Fox Soccer Channel will be Nielsen rated beginning in October, so we'll have a better handle on that in the future.)
For now, we can only hope that a quite a few folks saw United claim the 3-foot Dewar Cup in a final-worthy, closely contested 2-1 triumph at RFK Stadium. The home team prevailed in a classic clash of a splashy MLS side against a smaller but impressive USL outfit, one that gave Tom Soehn's team all it could handle.
The muggy night finished with balls flashing across United's goal as the USL underdogs pressed doggedly for the equalizer. It never came, however -- an early goal from striker Luciano Emilio and a game-winner from Fred secured the Black and Red's $100,000 prize money and an automatic berth in the 2009-10 CONCACAF Champions League field.
"They gave us a real run, so hats off to them," said Soehn, who won an Open Cup as a player with the Dallas Burn in 1997. "You set goals in the beginning, and obviously, this is one of them. As you achieve your goals, there are some bigger fish out there that we want to get, so we're going to enjoy tonight. But tomorrow, it's back to work."
For all of United's history, this was just the club's second championship this decade, along with the 2004 MLS Cup.
You certainly wouldn't want U.S. Soccer to contrive these MLS-USL finals, but who would mind seeing more of them? (Next time, however, wouldn't it be swell to see the smaller club get the home match, eh?)
Charleston, responsible for eliminating two MLS clubs from the single-elimination tournament, should fondly and proudly remember its visit to RFK. The Battery did its part to manufacture a spirited 90 minutes of solid technical work and tactical issues for its opponents to sort through.
The night included two well-taken goals by United and two good periods of response from Charleston -- even if just one ultimately reaped profit. Throughout the match, Charleston patiently dealt with United's high pressure, thanks mostly to Lazo Alavanja's bright work. The home side, meanwhile, needed some time to plot solutions but ultimately found ways around the Battery's effective low-pressure tactics.
United clearly is at a higher level in terms of movement and possession, but Charleston frequently neutralized Soehn's team through tight organization, the work of Ian Fuller and Osvaldo Alonso against United playmaker Jamie Moreno, and calm, committed defending throughout.
The top of Charleston's roster definitely is MLS quality. Alavanja, working as an advanced playmaker, and deep-lying midfielder Alonso were more than capable. Goalkeeper Dusty Hudock couldn't do much about either United goal and generally handled everything else United offered.
The Charleston attacks went through Alavanja, who nearly turned the match in the 20th minute. Not long after Ian Fuller leveled matters at 1-1, Alavanja beat capable United goalkeeper Louis Crayton but smacked the post from a tough angle. Alonso, 22, a ball-hawk center midfielder, probably could strengthen several MLS teams at the position.
Depth ultimately made the difference, as the introduction of the recently injured Fred turned the match for United. His sophisticated runs finally provided something to regularly trouble the Battery back line. It was the feisty Brazilian who broke through for United's 50th-minute go-ahead effort.
The match played out about as one would expect, with Charleston sitting back, absorbing United's pressure early, content to let the home side circulate balls around the perimeter 50 to 60 yards away. The underdogs were a bit unlucky as Emilio opportunistically spotted Hudock a few steps off his line to provide a 6th-minute lead.
Moreno's creative backheel pass found Santino Quaranta's dash forward, but defender John Wilson's sliding intervention broke up the thrust. The ball rolled out to Emilio, who pivoted from 24 yards to place a shot just beyond Hudock's reach. (Emilio reaggravated a groin strain on the goal and needed to be replaced, which could have hurt United but for the four-substitution allowance in Open Cup matches.)
"I'm sure everybody in the stadium is thinking right then that it's gonna be 3- or 4-nil," Battery manager Mike Anhaeuser said. "But our team competed very well, and we came right back and got a goal."
His team answered just six minutes later when midfielder Chris Williams broke through along the right and calmly left a ball for Fuller inside United's penalty area. Fuller finished with authority, and Charleston was more than in the match. The Battery confidence grew further after 15 minutes, as the men from South Carolina collected the game's first two corner kicks.
Meanwhile, technically proficient United had plenty of possessions but failed to draw up workable solutions to Charleston's low-pressure tactics. The Battery's back four kept a compact line, permitting a few crosses from wide areas but content that its pair of 6-foot-2 center backs (Kevin Nylen and Marco Reda) could cope. Following Emilio's early strike, United, still dealing with several injuries, didn't bother Hudock again until Moreno got behind the defense to summon a nice 36th-minute Hudock save.
Moreno was the architect of all three of United's first-half chances, later putting Fred through just before the break with a wonderfully chipped pass, which his teammate missed on narrowly.
"They do have that little bit of extra quality in a couple of players," Anhaeuser said. "But other than that, I think we're pretty close, and that's why it's gonna be a battle any time these teams play."
The Battery might have been a little naïve on Fred's game-winner. Two defenders moved toward Quaranta on Clyde Simms' ball into a gap. When Quaranta left the pass, Fred was in the clear to beat Hudock with a delicate chip from in close.
Later, offensive-minded subs weren't enough to fashion a late Charleston breakthrough, as Bryan Namoff and Marc Burch enjoyed grade-A nights along United's back line.
"We fought well, and we kept together," Namoff said. "We didn't really lose our heads in the second half, at 1-1. We got a goal in the end, and it's a great booster for us to pull this one out."
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.