"I can't put my finger on it," midfielder Chris Pontius said, "but I'm not going to complain that we're in an Open Cup final now."
As United, at 3-21-6, nears several marks for historic MLS futility, the saving grace of this season remains. On the strength of four unlikely victories, D.C. on Tuesday in Sandy, Utah, still will have a chance to claim its 13th major title — and first since 2008.
Real Salt Lake will host United in the U.S. Open Cup final, as one of the league's top teams faces its worst with silverware on the line.
"When your belief is down in maybe one area, it's a fresh opportunity and a different mindset," coach Ben Olsen said. "It's kind of spiraled in a positive, while the season results and the MLS games, the belief spiraled in a negative."
This time a year ago, United was in the midst of a late-season surge that ended with a trip to the Eastern Conference final. But a combination of failed signings, injuries and systematic underachievement derailed this season from the beginning.
At 0-6-2 in its past eight matches, United hasn't tasted victory since Aug. 7, a 2-0 upset of the Chicago Fire in the Open Cup semifinals. Yet there has been a renewed energy to United's training sessions, and a spring in Olsen's step.
For the first time in awhile, these players and coaches are doing more than audition for next season.
"To have this at the end here has helped me in what would have been a very tough situation to motivate these guys with nothing to play [for] with two and a half months left," Olsen said. "I think the whole energy of the group in the last two weeks, as this thing has been creeping closer, the level has been raised, the training has been sharper."
United faces tough odds against Salt Lake, which sits atop the Western Conference with a 15-10-6 record. But D.C. doesn't want that to weigh on its tactics. Although RSL is known for a possession-driven style, United hopes it can disrupt that diamond midfield's rhythm by keeping All-Star distributors Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales off the ball.
The defend-and-counter strategy, used to great effect by many an underdog, isn't a part of the game plan.
"You hope to eliminate their possession and force them into tough decisions," Pontius said. "When we do win the ball, we have to be patient ourselves. We can't just play a counterattacking game. They will eventually pick you apart if you try to do that."
As captain Dwayne De Rosario noted, "When you go down there in a league game, you're looking at, 'OK, maybe we'll come out of there with a point,' whatever the case is. But if it's a final, you go in there to win."
It's a nothing-to-lose strategy for a team that knows this is its last truly meaningful game until March. After embracing such a mentality during the 2012 playoff push, United is hoping it can replicate last fall's magic — for 90 minutes, at least.
"Not many people have given us a chance in this game," Olsen said. "But we've decided that we're going to show up anyways and see if we can't win it."
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