For D.C. United supporters, the nightmare of 2013 seems far away. On Thursday, the Black and Red will continue to ride the only positive of that season (A victory in the US Open Cup) all the way to their Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal matchup against L.D. Alajuelense in Costa Rica.
Alajuelense are a good side, and not to be underestimated. The club won the competition in 2004, a feat that no one in MLS has managed in the tournament’s current format. Playing abroad in CCL is often the downfall of MLS sides, unable to cope with the atmosphere, intensity, and pressure of Mexican and Central American clubs. This will be no different for D.C. United, who are sure to encounter a fiery atmosphere in Costa Rica.
United has the advantage of being the top seed in the tournament, and will host the second leg on March 4th at RFK stadium. In order to be successful, United must manage to score at least one away goal in order to take full advantage of the return leg at RFK. A draw that doesn’t end 0-0, or even a narrow loss, could work in United’s favor.
Fresh off an accelerated MLS preseason, United will be facing a club in mid season form. That form, at least recently, hasn’t been the best. Alajuelense fell to arch rivals Saprissa 2-0 over the weekend, and have not won in their last three matches. Alajuelense will also be missing several starters, suspended following a late brawl with Cruz Azul to close out their CCL group stage. However, a squad in mid season form should still have the advantage in match sharpness and fitness over their MLS counterparts.
United must be disciplined and focused in Costa Rica, and rely heavily on a defense that gave up the least amount of goals last season in MLS. Head Coach Ben Olsen has opted for continuity, returning every member of the defense from 2014. Although suffering a slight injury in the USMNT January camp, Steven Birnbaum has made the flight to Costa Rica and appears to be in contention to play. Look to Bill Hamid to play the hero once again should Alajuelense manage to break through the back line.
Big game experience and leadership will also be crucial while in Costa Rica. Veterans such as Chris Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, and Bobby Boswell will work to keep the Black and Red cool under pressure. In this regard, the addition of Finnish midfielder/defender Markus Halsti is a major plus. Halsti won the Allsvenskan with Swedish powerhouse Malmo, and has the experience of going head to head with the world’s elite in the UEFA Champions League.
Another player with big game experience in the Concacaf Champions league is newly crowned designated player Fabian Espindola. In 2011, while playing for Real Salt Lake, Fabi lost the CCL final to Monterrey, and has said on multiple occasions that he is hungry for another shot at the trophy. Suspended for the first six games of the MLS season, Espindola is sure to come out firing in CCL- hopefully into the back of the net (and not at the officiating crew). Fabi is also sporting a new number on the back of his kit, the number 10 worn by many greats of DC United. Notable among these greats is Marco Etcheverry, who wore the number 10 when DC United won the Concacaf Champions Cup in 1998.
United will need at least an away goal in this series, and Fabi could very well be the difference.
At the beginning of pre season, Olsen stated that, eventually, an MLS club would win Concacaf Champions League. He went on to add, “why not us?”
With the prospect of an MLS work stoppage, the league is on edge. Players and owners debate behind closed while fans contemplate the prospect of losing the first few weeks of the season. For this week, and the next, DC United and the Montreal Impact will give MLS fans something to cheer for, and hopefully that attitude of “why not us?” can carry one (or both) into the semifinals.
If United return from Costa Rica with a close result, they will have that chance. As I said before, a scoring draw or even a narrow loss could give DC United a slight advantage in front of a friendly crowd, in what would probably be a cold Washington, D.C. A win, and United will be knocking on the door of the semifinals. For now, I’ll predict a 1-1 draw.
(image courtesy of dcunited.com)