For the first time since taking over as coach of the struggling New York Red Bulls, former D.C. United coach Bruce Arena returns to RFK Stadium tonight for a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal against United.
Arena -- dismissed as coach of the U.S. national team after it failed to advance to the second round of the World Cup in June -- guided United to two MLS championships (1996 and 1997) in three seasons. He also led the team to a U.S. Open Cup title in 1996.
"I have a lot of good memories there," Arena told the (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger this week. "The last game I coached there in '97 we won the [MLS] championship. In 1998, we played Vasco da Gama, and even though we lost, it was a great day for soccer in this country."
But United players aren't buying into the hype surrounding the return of the team's first coach who, before joining the Red Bulls earlier this month, had not coached in MLS in nearly a decade.
"Coaches don't play," United striker Alecko Eskandarian said. "[United coach] Peter [Nowak] doesn't play and Bruce doesn't play, even though I think we would have a little more advantage if Peter did play because I don't think Bruce can move as well as he used to."
The Red Bulls are United's longtime rivals and Arena added more fuel to the game in recent weeks when he hinted that the current United team was not as good as the teams he coached.
"I know how the media can twist a person's words around," Eskandarian said. "But if that's the way he feels, that's fine. He's entitled to his opinion. I've just got to play my game. I have a lot of respect for Bruce obviously going to [the University of Virginia]. With the national team, he did some great things and I have nothing but respect for him ... there's no way I could ever criticize him."
The U.S. Open Cup is a single-elimination tournament, similar to England's famed FA Cup. The event was founded in 1914 and is open to all amateur and pro teams in the United States. The champion takes home $100,000, while the runner-up receives $50,000. The defending champion is the Los Angeles Galaxy.
United reached the quarterfinal of the Cup after a victory over the Columbus Crew in overtime last month in the round of 16 at the SoccerPlex in Germantown.
"This game is very important," Nowak said. "Having a big advantage in Major League Soccer regular season gives us a cushion to focus on these games but we haven't achieved anything yet. My guys are hungry for success and hungry for trophies."
United lost 4-1 on penalty kicks to FC Dallas in the quarterfinals of the Cup last year.
A little more than a week ago, United and the Red Bulls played to a scoreless tie in an MLS game at Giants Stadium. It was the first time this season that United didn't score in a game. United is now winless in four consecutive MLS games.
"We want to win tournaments and the U.S. Open Cup is a big tournament for us, and the fact that we are playing our rival makes it even bigger, so it's a huge game," United defender Bobby Boswell said.
Midfielder Christian Gomez, a key player for the club this season, is doubtful for the game after a leg injury (popliteus strain) in Saturday's tie with Colorado, while the Red Bulls, will be without midfielder Dema Kovalenko, who is suspended.
Tonight's winner will face either the Chicago Fire or the New England Revolution on the road in the semifinals on Sept. 6.
The last time these teams met in the U.S. Open Cup, the Red Bulls -- then the MetroStars -- beat United 3-2 in 2003, then lost 1-0 to Chicago in the final.