The U.S. Open Cup has at times been a refuge for an MLS club suffering through an otherwise forgettable season. So it proved for the Houston Dynamo, who defeated the Philadelphia Union 3-0 on Wednesday to claim its first USOC crown.
In terms of shock value, the Dynamo's run didn't quite rise to the same level as 2013 champions D.C. United, whose run to the title saw it claim more victories in the USOC (five) then it did during its entire league campaign (three). But Houston has been in poor form for much of 2018, and with the Dynamo 12 points out of the sixth and final playoff spot, it has been all but mathematically eliminated from the playoff race.
So where the heck has the team that has excelled in the Cup been? Injuries have been a factor, and while there are plenty of other teams that can say the same, a low budget side like the Dynamo is more susceptible to a critical injury or two scuttling its campaign. In this case, the near season-long absence of holding midfielder Juan Cabezas has been a killer, as has a lack of continuity on the back, all of which have seen the Dynamo cough up plenty of late goals.
But Houston does have some talented pieces. Forward Mauro Manotas may have to surrender his title as the Best Kept Secret in MLS. His two goals -- both scored in the game's first 25 minutes -- gave him 20 in all competitions this season.
Alberth Elis was an absolute handful on the night too, overpowering Union left-back Ray Gaddis time and time again. He set up both of Manotas' goals, and might have had a few more assists with some sharper finishing from his teammates.
Then there is the timeless DaMarcus Beasley who, at 36 years old, claimed the 17th trophy of his illustrious career. He was part of a solid defensive effort from the Dynamo, despite losing center-back Philippe Senderos to a first half injury that forced him to be substituted.
That solidity, in terms of on-field execution, proved to be the biggest difference between the two teams on the night. The Union was far too mistake-prone, and looked nothing like the rising force in the Eastern Conference that they've been for much of the league season.
It was an especially rough night for Philadelphia's youthful back line. Twenty-year-old center-back Auston Trusty suffered through a brutal evening on the ball, and he needlessly dove in on Manotas in the run-up to Houston's second goal. His miserable night was made complete when he his attempted clearance following an Andre Blake save went straight into the side netting for an own goal.
Yet youth can't explain away the Union's overall performance. Veterans, in particular its vaunted midfield of Borek Dockal, Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya, suffered through stretches of subpar play as well. The Union responded positively to Manotas' fourth minute opener, but then after a controlling play for the next 20 minutes, Houston's second put the Union in a funk from which it took a good 40 minutes to emerge. Set pieces were squandered, speculative shots were taken, and the Union was forced to push more and more numbers into attack, all of which played right into the hands of Houston's vaunted counterattack.
Beasley, Manotas reflect on U.S. Open Cup triumph
DaMarcus Beasley and Mauro Manotas share what the U.S. Open Cup win means to them and the city of Houston with ESPN's Sebastian Salazar.
Once Trusty's own goal went in, Philly perked up, but by then it was far too late, and some poor finishing meant it never threatened to climb back into the match.
The challenge now for the Union is to not let Wednesday's disappointment bleed into its quest to clinch a spot in the postseason and perhaps even host one of the games in the knockout round. Manager Jim Curtin has done stellar work this season, squeezing the most out of a roster that outside of its three-man midfield and Blake in goal, lacks elite pieces. Curtin certainly deserves to be granted a new contract based on what has been accomplished so far, but a playoff place will be needed to secure that.
As for Houston, with the third trophy in its history in tow, it can start planning for next season. The odd part of the Dynamo's struggles is that it has the attacking players in place, which are usually the toughest -- and priciest -- pieces to acquire. But roster balance can prove to be elusive. For the Dynamo, the quest to find it goes on, but its latest title will provide a glimpse of what is possible.