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MLS teams host crucial Champions League games
by Ridge Mahoney, September 22nd, 2009 7AM
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[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE]The second phase of the regional championship's group play gets underway this week, as the teams run through their three opponents for the second time. Houston starts off action for the three MLS participants Tuesday by hosting Panamanian club Arabe Unido at Robertson Stadium (10 p.m. ET), Columbus plays Mexican powerhouse Cruz Azul Wednesday (8 p.m. ET) at Columbus Crew Stadium, and D.C. United faces CD Marathon of Honduras Thursday (8 p.m. ET) at RFK Stadium. All of the games will be televised live on Fox Soccer Channel, and since the MLS teams are playing at home and none are atop their groups, each needs a victory.

The Dynamo sits third in Group A with four points from three matches, and can tie Arabe Unido in the standings by winning. Mexican club Pachuca, which is in second place with six points, comes to Robertson Stadium next week after playing Salvadoran bottom-dweller Isidro Metapan.

"We've played two of the hardest away games," said Dynamo midfielder Stuart Holden to mlsnet.com of trips to Panama and Mexico. "It's important that come Tuesday we're really fired up. We know once again it's a must-win if we want to advance and make it to the quarterfinals."

The Dynamo is shorthanded up top for Tuesday's game. Brian Ching, Cam Weaver, Chris Wondolowski and recently acquired (from Kansas City) Abe Thompson are the options, since Luis Angel Landin is ineligible because he played for Cruz Azul in the preliminary round, and Dominic Oduro is suspended.

When the teams met three weeks ago in Panama, soccer took a backseat. The teams finished playing nine against eight following 11 yellow cards and five ejections. Two power failures delayed completion of the game, and also Houston's departure from the stadium. Kei Kamarascored for Houston in the 69th minute but a valuable victory slipped away in stoppage time when Orlando Rodriguez equalized.

Kamara has since been traded to Kansas City in exchange for Thompson, whose speed may come in handy late in the game as a sub. Since Houston doesn't play a league game this weekend, Coach Dominic Kinnear can go with Ching and Weaver as the starters if he wishes, and the team will have a full week to recover and train before facing Pachuca, which beat Houston, 2-0, last week.

CREW CALL. By winning in Costa Rica the Crew raised their record in Group C to two wins and one loss in three games, and it goes on short rest against Cruz Azul after tying Chicago, 2-2, on the road Sunday.

Cruz Azul battered Columbus, 5-0, at Estadio Azul three weeks ago, and leads the group with seven points from three games. This is the first of four straight home games for Columbus; it hosts Los Angeles and Seattle in league play as well as Saprissa next week and needs to generate some momentum despite tough opposition.

The Crew trailed, 2-0, in Chicago before rallying with a pair of goals by Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who scored with a diving header and then with a penalty kick called when Steven Lenhart and Fire defender Wilman Conde lunged for a 50-50 ball. The point kept the Crew three points ahead of Chicago atop the Eastern Conference standings and Coach Robert Warzycha mollified if not pleased.

"It came down to us challenging ourselves at halftime," said defender Frankie Hejduk to mlsnet.com "Robert laid into us a little bit. We actually were laying into ourselves because we knew it wasn't our best effort in the first half. We came out lackadaisical. We were a little hesitant. We were second to balls. It wasn't one or two guys in the locker room, it was everybody.

"We wanted to show that we were a better team than that. We started fighting and throwing our bodies about a little bit more and things started happening."

UNITED TEST. After losing its first two CCL matches by 3-1 scores to Marathon and Toluca, respectively, the odds that D.C. could advance to the knockout rounds were long.

It garnered its first victory ever in this CCL group play by beating San Juan Jabloteh last week, 1-0, yet with just three points from three games must also beat Marathon to keep its chances realistic.

Christian Gomez, who converted the penalty against San Juan Jabloteh for the only goal, is suspended and injuries have depleted United in the back, as Marc Burch (ankle) and Dejan Jakovic (sports hernia) are recovering from surgeries.

Marathon scored twice in the final seven minutes to scuttle United's quest to get a point in San Pedro Sula, after Luciano Emilio equalized early in the second half. Two egregious errors by defender Greg Janicki provided Marathon with goals; he whiffed on a clearance to set up the first one and committed a foul in the penalty area that resulted in the third.

After a nine-day break, United plays the first of four games in a 10-day span, and all of them are important to their domestic and international prospects. Marathon is second in Group B with six points, Toluca leads with nine from three victories and hosts pointless Jabloteh Wednesday.

"We've had days where a lot of us didn't show up, and we've had talks and heart-to-hearts and all that mumbo-jumbo," said United midfielder Ben Olsen. "Hopefully we don't have to go through that again and we start approaching the games down the stretch with a little more focus and attention to detail every game."



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