By Ridge Mahoney Senior Editor
There are no moral victories at D.C. United.
Losses are just that, nothing more, yet at the Estadio Jalisco Tuesday night it attained some semblance of triumph for itself, its fans, and its league.
A 2-1 decision sent Mexico's
Guadalajara into the CONCACAF Champions Cup final, 3-2, on aggregate and United out of the competition. On the balance of play over two legs, Guadalajara deserved to advance, yet by only a slim
In both legs the away teams started stronger and took the lead. In both legs, it rained. But only in the second leg did a usually impeccable goalkeeper commit a howler after the teams
had traded goals by Jaime Moreno
and Adolfo Bautista
late in the first half.
Until Troy Perkins
, who otherwise played an exemplary game, let a dipping ball from Gonzalo Pineda
slip through his fingers in
the 52nd minute, United's mistakes were few and its quality excellent. Moreno's goal epitomized the flair and swagger D.C. brought into Jalisco, as he and Luciano
unbalanced the Guadalajara defense with runs and touches that were well supported by Ben Olsen
United enjoyed significant stretches of composed, confident play but seldom converted that possession into clear-cut chances. Christian
preferred to tuck in behind Moreno and Emilio, which made sense when those two were in advanced positions, but when Moreno floated wide or Emilio checked back, Gomez usually stayed
square with them, rather than stepping up to form the apex of their triangle. When Gomez did get deep into the penalty area, he nearly scored a dramatic equalizer.
Moreno bypassed Gomez
entirely to set up and score United's goal. His ball forward from midfield found Emilio marked at the edge of the box, but the Brazilian kept the ball in play and jabbed it square as Moreno ran
forward. A deflection surprised Moreno, but when the ball popped up off his left foot he turned to hook it over his head with his right. It looped over stranded keeper Luis Michel
and floated under the crossbar, vivid proof Moreno has more in his head than what he lacks in his legs.
Guadalajara had struggled to play through D.C.'s
tightly-woven midfield web, but once it found ways to reach the three-man back line with the ball on the ground, the match's momentum shifted. When United did err, Guadalajara pounced.
Perkins dove bravely to block a Sergio Santana
blast after a turnover, and when Facundo Erpen
was caught upfield with
three minutes left in the first half, Guadalajara tied the score. Alberto Medina
, taking on a probing role in the absence of suspended Omar Bravo
, set up Bautista from the left flank after Ramon Morales
had chipped into space. Central defender Bobby Boswell
, eyes glued on the ball, failed to react when Bautista stopped his run at the edge of the six. Medina's pass found the channel between the two, and
Bautista first-timed the ball right-footed past Perkins.
Despite falling behind, 2-1, on Perkins' miscue, D.C. had enough spirit and fitness to keep battling. Stephen deRoux
, a first-half substitute for a woozy Josh Gros
, set up a chance for Gomez, but Michel repelled the rising shot and scrambled to
recover the rebound. Had United been chasing the game from the early minutes, it would have been overrun in the second half, and though Perkins twice saved smartly to keep the deficit at a goal,
United kept pressing. Fred
's long-awaited debut appearance -- as a sub -- registered little effect, yet D.C. punched into the goalmouth to force desperation
clearances and in stoppage time a sharp-angle header from Emilio struck the goalpost.
Thus far in 2007, Guadalajara has seldom replicated the dazzling form that swept through the Apertura
2006 playoffs and captured its first league title since 2002. United has yet to play a regular-season game yet threw everything it could into this series. Both teams stood up to the standards
Great soccer it wasn't, but great theater it certainly was.