UNAM topped the two-time MLS defending champion, 3-1, Wednesday night at Houston's Robertson Stadium, in front of 8,741 fans, despite fielding a younger lineup than it sent out when the teams played a spectacular 4-4 tie in Mexico City three weeks ago.
Juan Carlos Cacho and Fernando Espinoza scored in the first half-hour, Houston cut the deficit in half with an own goal six minutes before halftime, and Marco Antonio Palacios flicked home a corner kick in the 69th minute to quell a mild Houston uprising. Dwayne DeRosario and Brad Davis came on as substitutes in the second half in the hopes Houston could snag a point, but the crispness needed to cut open a cohesive UNAM defense in its defensive third seldom materialized.
Cacho converted a penalty kick following a foul by defender Patrick Ianni, whose forearm knocked over Ismael Iniguez as he dribbled into the penalty area on one of the many occasions the 27-year-old threatened the Dynamo goal. A brief spell of Houston pressure yielded a corner kick when Marco Antonio Palacios' back pass forced his brother to desperately kick it over the goal line, and UNAM turned a clearance into the second goal.
As Pumas broke out, midfielder Ricardo Clark stepped up and, along with a pair of defenders who'd come up for the corner, couldn't get back in time. Orlando Pineda ran the ball up the left wing on a three-on-two, and he played the ball across the goalmouth for Espinoza to steer back past keeper Pat Onstad and inside the far post.
Houston scored in the 39th minute when rookie Geoff Cameron ran down the right wing and centered a low ball toward Nate Jaqua at the near post. The tall forward, caught in a tangle between brothers Alejandro Palacios (the goalie) and Palacios (the defender) couldn't get a foot on the ball, but it banged off one -- or both -- of them, and into the net.
Richard Mulrooney replaced Clark at halftime and sparked a mild Houston midfield revival, but the insertion of DeRosario in the 62nd minute yielded only marginal improvement to the attack. A rare UNAM attack resulted in Ianni conceding a corner, and Palacios came forward to score a most elegant clinching goal.
He started a run from the right side of the penalty area and met Iniguez's inswinging corner kick beyond the near post, and managed to flick it with the outside of his foot past Mulrooney, over Onstad and just under the crossbar to punctuate UNAM's superiority on the night.
By winning, UNAM (2-0-3, 9 points) clinched a spot in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals; by losing, Houston (1-1-2, 5 points) suffered its first defeat of the competition and now must get four points in its final two games against Luis Angel Firpo (El Salvador) to advance. Firpo (2-1-1, 7 points) took over second place by beating San Francisco FC, 3-2, in Panama City. It was also the first loss suffered by the Dynamo in any competition since a 3-0 loss to the Red Bulls nearly two months ago (Aug. 24), a run of 11 games unbeaten.
Houston and Firpo play next Tuesday in San Salvador, and again at Robertson Stadium Nov. 26, three days after MLS Cup 2008, in the makeup of their Sept. 17 match cancelled in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.
Unless Houston can garner a tie and a win in those two games, all four MLS entrants in the inaugural Champions League will have fallen short of the final eight.