Only one MLS team will face Mexican opposition in the Concacaf Champions' Cup semifinals this year, with D.C. United drawing the short straw to face defending champion Pachuca on Tuesday. Houston, which was eliminated by Pachuca in last year's semis, opens its two-game semifinal series against Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica Wednesday at Robertson Stadium, which is a formidable enough task. Yet D.C. is facing a tough opponent that plays at altitude and has been winning domestic and international trophies regularly for the past two years.
Such a task explains partly why D.C. United has signed three Argentines -- midfielder Marcelo Gallardo, striker Franco Neill and defender Gonzalo Peralta - and Colombian defender Gonzalo Martinez, as well as Peruvian keeper Jose Carvallo. Yet Coach Tom Soehn has another goalkeeper who's been tested internationally.
D.C. is away in the first leg (Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel), at the Estadio Hidalgo in Pachuca, which is about 8,000 feet above sea level, roughly a half-mile higher than the 5,200-feet altitude of Mexico City it encountered last year against Guadalajara.
Aside from the altitude issues, D.C. is incorporating several new players in the harshest of environments, with the pride of its badge and its league at stake.
"Obviously in the Champions' Cup we're playing the very best [Mexican teams] and I think last year we were pretty competitive," said MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis. "We still have a way to go. We need to win that competition, and it's a big focus of ours. But being in that competition and having a lot of young players that are gaining that experience helps us to develop and move forward and I'm hopeful for this year's competition."
The keys for D.C. aren't complicated regardless of elevation. It can't afford to flub scoring chances and commit defensive errors that concede soft goals.
MONEY MEN. Playing at altitude last year with a 2-0 home-leg advantage, Houston conceded two goals but then matched Pachuca goal for goal for the rest of the 90 minutes. It led, 4-3, on Brian Ching's goal with 11 minutes left, but seven minutes later, Gabriel Cabellero struck back with a header of its own to re-tie the series, 4-4. Pachuca dominated the overtime and after scoring what proved to the winner (5-4) kept the ball moving to drain the exhausted Dynamo players of the little energy they had left, though keeper Miguel Calero stopped a blast from Dwayne De Rosario.
Caballero and Cristian Gimenez scored all five of Pachuca's goals, which reflects in a way the vast disparity between MLS teams and their Mexican counterparts when it comes to salaries. The best Mexican teams not only have rosters larger than the 18-man MLS squads, their salary budgets are several times that of MLS teams, and much of that extra cash is spent on players who can score goals and set them up.
Pachuca scored just one goal in its quarterfinal series to defeat CD Montagua of Honduras, 1-0. Luis Montes scored for Pachuca, which still features a potent lineup of Gimenez and Caballero, as well as Montes and Andreas Chitiva.
In league play Juan Carlos Cacho and Luis Gabriel Rey lead the team with four goals during the 2008 Clausura, during which Pachuca is 5-5-2 (W-L-T) after Montes scored the first goal and set up the other Saturday in a 2-0 defeat of Atlante. Pachuca is third in Group 1 and seventh overall with 17 points.
The Tuzos travel to Mexico City for a Sunday match against Club America, which isn't nearly as daunting as it should be: America is last in Group 2 and has the fewest points, eight, of the 18 Mexican league teams.
Gallardo set up his D.C. teammates for a few good chances Saturday against Kansas City in a 2-0 defeat. A thunderous shot by Neill was turned over the crossbar.
Jaime Moreno stayed on the bench throughout the match, which signals D.C.'s preference that if he can play it will be against Pachuca. He is sufferering from a sore hamstring and is listed as questionable; as was the case against Kansas City, midfielder Ben Olsen is recovering from ankle surgery and isn't on the active roster.
GOALKEEPING GAFFES. D.C . fans remember all too well the sight of a tepid long-distance shot slipping through the hands of former goalkeeper Troy Perkins for the winning goal in Guadalajara's 2-1 home victory. It clinched a 3-2 aggregate win in last year's semifinals.
His possible replacement, Zach Wells, has played only 24 games for the Dynamo and MetroStars in four seasons, but he performed well for Houston in last year's Concacaf semifinals despite conceding five goals in the away leg.
Wells, 27, rescued Houston at the end of regulation by blocking two point-blank shots in the last three minutes of regulation. In the quarterfinals against Costa Rican club Puntarenas, Wells saved a penalty kick in the first leg after replacing injured starting keeper Pat Onstad, and Houston got out of town with a narrow 1-0 defeat inflicted by a deflected goal in stoppage time. It won the second leg at home, 2-0, to advance.
Carvallo just turned 22 yet has played internationally the past two seasons: in the 2006 Copa Libertadores and the 2007 Copa Sudamericana. He played 94 first-division games for Universitario and also debuted for the national team last September, playing the second half of a 3-0 victory over Bolivia in Lima.
The muscular Calero is prone to thunderous challenges and flamboyant gestures, but he's also a quick, smart, brave keeper who doesn't concede many easy goals. In the intense pressure of a two-game semifinal a frayed nerve can be the difference.