Oct 1, 2013; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; D.C. United midfielder Lewis Neal (24) scores a goal past Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando (18) during the first half of their U.S. Open Cup final soccer match at Rio Tinto Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Urquhart-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. United: The Team That Couldn't...Still Can

Take a bow, Ben Olsen’s D.C. United, the Wigan Athletic of Major League Soccer. If the 1-0 victory for United over Jason Kreis’s Real Salt Lake does not serve as a prime example of the tremendous competitive parity in this league, I’m afraid nothing will.

So what if they have the worst record in Major League Soccer. So what if they are down and out, their clothes tattered, their tears falling like a maiden on the cusp of her purity being deflowered forever? So what if they have imploded all season after blowing game after game, week after week, month after month? So what?

That doesn’t matter. That doesn’t matter at all. What matters is that they’ve won the oldest football competition in the United States, their third trophy of this kind. It’s their most recent addition to their burgeoning collection of hardware and silverware and national, regional and international honors.

This is D.C. United, a team that defeated the Richmond Kickers on penalties 4-2 before cruising past the Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution by the score of 3-1, the Chicago Fire in a #DosACero, and now, on Tuesday night, Real Salt Lake on a goal from Lewis Neal in the 45th minute.

Lewis Neal, a Stoke City standout who knows what it takes to play at the highest levels of English football. Lewis Neal, a player who only scores two goals in 18 leageu appearances for United. Lewis Neal, who forever wrote his name into the expanding books and walls of D.C. United lore, spearing and impaling the fortress that houses Real Salt Lake.

Real Salt Lake, a team that had all of its Open Cup games at Rio Tinto Stadium. Real Salt Lake, a team in the hunt for a spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs and who just dispatched the Vancouver Whitecaps last weekend by the same scoreline they would succumb to.

Real Salt Lake, a club that defeated the Atlanta Silverbacks 3-2, the Charleston Battery 5-2, the Carolina RailHawks 3-0 and the Portland Timbers by the scoreline of 2-1. Real Salt Lake, the alleged better team on paper that should have done the work and won for their home fans.

Oct 1, 2013; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Real Salt Lake fan Noah Paras watches his team warm up before the U.S. Open Cup final soccer match against D.C. United at Rio Tinto Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Urquhart-USA TODAY Sports

But there are times where the better team on paper is the worst team on the pitch. Consider the numerous times RSL has degenerated into FSL, their unwanted alter ego, Fake Salt Lake. (Anointed by the rival fans, mind). In 2010, they lost in the MLS Cuy Playoffs to FC Dallas. In the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League Final, they were blown away by CF Monterrey. And in the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs, they were upended by the Seattle Sounders.

If the heroism of Football League Championship side Wigan Athletics tells anything about the character and grit of an underdog, it’s that the worst can come to you in the league but in a cup competition, all will be forgiven.

The ironic thing to all this is that Del Loy Hansen is no Sheikh Mansour. Real Salt Lake are close to punching their ticket to the MLS Cup Playoffs. If Del Loy did do like the owners of Manchester City, Jason Kreis would be sacked. Thankfully, this is RSL, not Man City.

As for Ben Olson, it is not known immediately if this victory will have saved his job at D.C. United. A change may be coming regardless of this outcome. But no matter what happens to the worst team in MLS now in name only, one this is for certain: D.C. United are now on a mission next season: to be the best team in CONCACAF once again.

That is the mystique of this year’s D.C. United. The team that couldn’t…still can.

Tags: D.c. United Lewis Neal Major League Soccer Mls U.s. Open Cup

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