- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The good news for D.C. United was that it survived a scare Tuesday night in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, scoring a late goal to squeak past the Rochester Rhinos 2-1 at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds and secure a spot in the final.

The bad news came right before the final whistle when Thabiso Khumalo, who had the winning tally in the 83rd minute, broke his right hand when a ball was kicked into it. Rhinos defender Ty Harden also was seriously hurt and was carried off the field after breaking his left ankle midway through the second half.

“The game is overshadowed by a couple injuries,” United coach Tom Soehn said. “It’s unfortunate.”

The beginning of the first half was a defensive struggle. United did not have possession inside the box until the 12th minute, when midfielder Devon McTavish failed to find Jaime Moreno with a crossing pass, and the two teams combined to record just three shots in the first half-hour. United’s best chance to get on the scoreboard came in the 20th minute, but McTavish’s shot collided with midfielder Fred before it reached the goal.

Rochester’s tight protection in front of the goal gave United’s offense problems.

“It’s a challenge to break teams down that pack it in,” Soehn said. “You don’t get as many chances. … I don’t think we did a good job moving the ball.”

The Rhinos threatened to score right before the break, but United goalie Milos Kocic stopped a header by defender Kenney Bertz five minutes before halftime and quickly cleared the ball downfield. Seconds later, McTavish unleashed a shot that was deflected off the hand of Harden. Moreno put the ensuing penalty kick away in the 41st minute when Rhinos goalie Tim Melia guessed wrong and dived left. That gave United a 1-0 lead, which it took into intermission.

Moreno tried to add to United’s lead nine minutes into the second half, but his shot from the right post was tipped high, and Melia made a save on the resulting corner.

Then Soehn sent in some fresh legs: Rookie Chris Pontius replaced Moreno in the 58th minute, and John DiRaimondo took Fred’s spot in the 67th minute.

It was after that last substitution that Rochester tied the score. A free kick from the far side landed in the middle of the box, where forward Tai Atieno came up with the ball and drilled the equalizer. It was the first goal United had allowed in four Open Cup games against Rochester.

Even though the Rhinos play in USL1, United’s players weren’t surprised the match was close.

“We knew it was going to be tough,” Moreno said. “It’s always a battle with teams that come from the second division.”

Christian Gomez checked into the game in the 80th minute. He missed a free kick outside the box, but United got another opportunity soon thereafter when a ball bounced over the head of Bertz and into the possession of Pontius.

Pontius’ shot was turned away by Melia, but Khumalo was there to give United a 2-1 advantage.

“The keeper made a great save, it landed on my foot and I just put it in,” Khumalo said.

The Rhinos, who lost for the first time in 13 matches, had three shots after that but couldn’t connect.

A few key players could not take the field for United on Tuesday. After playing a full 90 minutes and scoring a goal Saturday night in his first game back from injury, forward Luciano Emilio was held out against the Rhinos so as not to tire him out so early in his return.

Midfielder Clyde Simms flew to Germany to have an apparent groin injury suffered against Colorado checked out, and new acquisition Danny Szetela had yet to receive his international transfer certificate, which would clear him to play. And though defender Dejan Jakovic had fulfilled his Canadian national team duty in the Gold Cup, he did not dress against Rochester.

United is 2-1 in its three previous Open Cup final appearances, winning in 1996 and 2008 and losing in penalty kicks the year after its first victory. It will try to become the first back-to-back champion of the MLS era Sept. 2 at RFK Stadium, taking on the winner of Tuesday’s late game between the Houston Dynamo and Seattle Sounders.

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