[COPA SUDAMERICANA] Make no mistake, regardless of what its MLS opponents may think, D.C. United regards itself as the league's flagship franchise, and considers international competitions like the Copa Sudamericana vital to its reputation. A matchup with Mexican club Guadalajara on Wednesday (8:30 pm ET, Fox Sports en Espanol) also provides a chance for revenge, because Chivas nipped D.C., 3-2, on aggregate in the CONCACAF Champions' Cup last spring.
"We believe we were better than Chivas, outplayed them down there and Troy [Perkins] had a bad night and we gave up two bad goals," says United president and CEO Kevin Payne. "We're very anxious to play them again."
After a 1-1 tie at RFK in the first leg, United lost the rematch, 2-1, in a heavy rain at Estadio Jalisco. Perkins let a long shot from Gonzalo Pineda slip through this fingers - literally - for the goal that decided the second leg and the series.
United blew a good chance or two also, so while Perkins took most of the blame, others were culpable.
Much has changed since that series, which was played at the tail end of the MLS preseason.
Coach Tom Soehn has melded Fred, who debuted for United in the second leg, with fellow attackers Jaime Moreno, Christian Gomez and Luciano Emilio into the league's highest-scoring unit (49 goals); given Clyde Simms a lot of time as the holding midfielder; traded defender Facundo Erpen for veteran Greg Vanney; and switched from a 3-5-2 system to a 4-4-2 formation while transforming college striker Marc Burch into one of the league's best left backs.
"He took a little time to clean up some of the things he did as a forward," says Soehn, who acquired Burch from Columbus for a third-round 2008 supplemental draft pick. "He was a little bit cute taking guys on in the wrong spots, but he's got a soccer brain and he adjusted his game pretty quickly and learned from mistakes. He's done very well up to this point."
United sits atop the overall league standings at 15-6-5, and hasn't lost a league match in two months. Its only defeats came against Houston and Los Angeles - on the road - in the SuperLiga after it tied Morelia (1-1) and beat Club America (1-0) in its group games against Mexican opposition.
Guadalajara, which is halfway through the Mexican league season and has a mediocre 3-3-3 record, swapped strikers over the summer.
Gone is Adolfo "Bufo" Bautista, who scored the first goal against United in the second leg. In is Omar Arellano, who before leaving Pachuca helped it win the Mexican Clausura, CONCACAF Champions' Cup, and yes, Copa Sudamericana.
Mexican teams have performed well in the Sudamericana since they were first allowed entry two years ago. Pachuca won it last year, and UNAM lost the 2005 final in La Bombonera to Boca Juniors on penalties, 4-3, after the two legs ended, 2-2.
Arellano has just one goal in a sputtering attack that scored only seven times in nine Apertura matches. During a 1-0 loss at Toluca Sunday, two Guadalajara players were ejected and Omar Bravo failed to convert a penalty. Its defense, however, leads the league with six goals conceded and has shut out four opponents.
United is playing Guadalajara in the round of 16 of a competition that started with 34 teams from the 10 South American nations and Mexico. D.C. is the only MLS representative and bears the scars of its Sudamericana experience two years ago, when it led Universidad Catolica 2-0 (3-1 on aggregate) early in the second leg but succumbed to a Catolica rally in Santiago to go out, 4-3. Catolica reached the semis, beating Brazilian club Fluminense in the quarterfinals, before Boca knocked it out.
Bryan Namoff, Josh Gros, Brian Carroll, Christian Gomez, Jaime Moreno and Olsen all played against Catolica in that series. (Clyde Simms and Perkins were non-playing subs.)
"I just think we have the ability to go down into South America and get results," says Payne. "We still have pretty bitter memories of our game in Catolica. We had some young players on the field that let us down a little bit in that game, and if we have that opportunity with this group you'll see a different result."
Getting past Guadalajara is just the first step, yet in the head-to-head hierarchy of club clashes between the border rivals, it ranks highly.
Unlike the SuperLiga, the CONCACAF Champions' Cup and Copa Sudamericana tournaments require foreign visits, and few teams are as passionately supported as Guadalajara. By refusing to employ non-Mexican players it stands as a symbol to the nation as well as its own fans.
By taking on foreign clubs with great traditions, D.C. hopes to strengthen its own stature.
"We been through these and we haven't done well in situations when we had leads and we were the better team," says Olsen. "It's time that this team takes care of some business. We have an experienced team, we've got guys that have been through it, we've got some stars. This is a pretty exciting team right now."