Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - If you ask anyone within the D.C. United organization, they'll probably tell you the club has had an absolutely dismal 2013 season.
United reached the Eastern Conference semifinals last season before bowing out to the New York Red Bulls and optimism ran high in the United camp prior to the season.
But the club has had a forgettable league campaign, sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with just three victories and an astounding 21 losses with four matches remaining on the docket.
Head coach Ben Olsen has to be wondering what has gone wrong.
Luckily for D.C. United, there was one caveat which saved the club's sputtering season: the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Major League Soccer's most successful franchise began play in U.S. soccer's oldest knockout tournament on May 28 with a third-round matchup against the USL Pro's Richmond Kickers.
By the time that match came around, United was firmly entrenched in the basement of the East with a 1-9-2 mark for just five points -- way too early for the club to throw up the white flag on the regular season, but poor enough that shifting the focus to a solid Cup run was a reality.
United struggled through the match with Richmond, playing to a scoreless draw before finally dispatching their affiliates, 4-2, on penalty kicks to advance to the fourth round against their Eastern Conference rival Philadelphia Union on June 12.
Heading into the match against the Union, D.C. United's league campaign was in a full-fledged tailspin as a loss to Chicago and a draw with New England left the side with a 1-10-3 mark.
United needed to win the tournament to turn a terrible season into a potentially successful one, and they played with that mentality against the Union as Dwayne De Rosario hit for a hat trick in a 3-1 victory which sent the team into a quarterfinal matchup with New England on June 26.
De Rosario played hero again for D.C. when he netted the winning goal in the 69th minute to lead the Black and Red to another 3-1 win, which set up a difficult semifinal match against Chicago at Toyota Park.
But United was up to the challenge that Chicago posed and used goals from De Rosario and Nick DeLeon to earn a birth in the final against a heavily-favored Real Salt Lake club.
At this point, United's league campaign had been pretty much lost and Olsen went ahead with installing younger players to quicken the rebuilding process with an eye toward next season.
But the influx of new blood meant a renewed vigor and energy as the club prepared to face the perennial West contenders at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Midfielder Jared Jeffrey, who is one of those young guns playing for a spot on next year's club, said it best when asked about the significance of the match given how United's regular season has gone:
"Obviously, our whole season comes down to 90 minutes against Salt Lake, so everyone is really focused, really tuned in and ready to go," Jeffrey said. "It's been a trying year but we have an opportunity to salvage something and we're really looking forward to it."
United came out of the gate with a real sense of urgency trying to match the energy of a rested Real Salt Lake side. Neither club could generate many chances, but things would break D.C.'s way right at the stroke of halftime.
John Thorrington got the sequence started when he launched a shot that deflected off RSL defender Carlos Salcedo. The bounce caromed straight to Lewis Neal near the penalty spot, and the English midfielder quickly slotted it past a diving Nick Rimando.
RSL generated several quality scoring chances in the second half but Neal's goal held up as the winner as United put an exclamation point on an exceptional Cup run, which yields them a nice chunk of prize money and a coveted automatic bid in the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League.
Olsen's club has four matches to go before their regular season comes to an end on Oct 26, and while that venture will end poorly, D.C. United still has something to celebrate after rescuing their season in spectacular fashion, thanks to the U.S. Open Cup.