By Ridge Mahoney
Facing Central American opposition on the road, be it World Cup qualifying or club competition, is pocked with pitfalls, as both D.C. United and Houston found out in the first legs of the CONCACAF Champions Cup quarterfinals Wednesday.
D.C. won and Houston lost as both teams showed considerable grit and spirit despite having trained for less than a month. D.C. had far too much firepower for its opponents; Houston just didn't have enough luck.
United simply outclassed Honduran club Olimpia, 4-1, with the grace and guile of Argentine Christian Gomez accounting for a pair of goals and one each going to defender Facundo Erpen and former Olimpia striker Luciano Emilio.
Gomez scored a superb goal in each half, and for his second goal - just 10 minutes after he needed to be helped off the field after taking a vicious kick to the knee - he curled a 20-yarder a whisker inside the base of the post to make the score, 3-1. Olimpia had threatened several times early in the second half to tie the game, but Gomez's masterpiece effectively throttled that threat.
Those regional bugaboos of bumpy fields, bad bounces, and zealous officiating plagued the Dynamo, which fell, 1-0, to Puntarenas of Costa Rica. Not until the second minute of stoppage time did the Costa Ricans score against the Dynamo, which was reduced to 10 men in the 72nd minute when defender Eddie Robinson received his second yellow card apparently for lying on the ground too long, bleeding from the lip, after being caught in a collision with his goalkeeper Zach Wells and a Puntarenas attacker.
Also dismissed was enraged team trainer Bruce Morgan, who - like everyone on the Houston bench - had been ducking objects thrown from the stands as the fans protested Robinson's slow recovery.
Morgan had tried to enter the field to treat Alejandro Moreno, and argued with the fourth official and referee German Arrendondo, who apparently believed Morgan was trying to waste time. Morgan also kicked the Red Cross stretcher in frustration.
Wells had replaced starter Pat Onstadmidway through the first half, after Onstad suffered an ankle injury while Roberto Wong fouled him in the process of scoring a disallowed goal. Wells stepped in admirably, saving a Kurt Bernard penalty with a full-length stretch and denying Jorge Barboza in the final minutes with another spectacular block.
But Wells had no chance when Bernard cut inside Moreno at the edge of the penalty area as Puntarenas launched a final, desperate attack. Bernard's rather weak left-footed shot deflected off the right foot of a lunging Ricardo Clark, and veered to the open side of the goal.
The second legs of both series are a week from Thursday. United hosts Olimpia at RFK, the Dynamo will play Puntarenas at the Aggie Soccer Complex in College Station, Texas. The series are decided on total goals and if the teams are tied at the end of regulation of the second leg, extra time will be played, to be followed by penalty kicks if necessary. There is no special provision for away goals.
In the semifinals, United plays the winner of the Western Connection FC (TRI)-CD Guadalajara (MEX) series, which Western Connection leads, 2-1, going into next week's second leg in Guadalajara. The Puntarenas-Houston winner takes on either Mexican club Pachuca or Deportivo Marquense of Guatemala, which open their series in Pachuca Thursday.