Last year, Houston was the only MLS team to reach the quarters: D.C. stumbled in the group phase, and the other two league representatives - New England and Chivas USA - were eliminated in the
head-to-head preliminary round. Houston fell in the quarterfinals to the eventual champion, Mexican club Atlante, 4-1 on aggregate.
D.C. United got through the preliminary round earlier this month, but needed penalty kicks to edge past Luis Angel Firpo (El Salvador), 5-4, after the teams had traded 1-1 ties. Christian Gomez equalized with a free kick for D.C. in the away leg to knot the aggregate, 2-2, and converted the decisive penalty kick.
"I don't think it was the prettiest game but results matter in these competitions," said midfielder Ben Olsen, one of five United players to put away their penalties. "To be frank it could have gone either way but you have to give credit to our guys. We hung in there and we stepped up on the PKs.
"This club always puts a lot of emphasis on this tournament. We want to be one of the better teams in this region and this is a way to put a stamp not only in America but abroad and show that D.C. United is a regional power."
One of only two MLS teams to win the Concacaf Champions' Cup (predecessor to the Champions' League) along with the Los Angeles Galaxy, D.C. is looking for some redemption after losing five and tying one of its group games last year. It starts off its schedule with a tough opponent in a difficult setting, in San Pedro Sula (10 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel ) against Marathon, which beat D.C. twice last year: 2-0 at Estadio Olimpico and 4-2 at RFK.
"It was a tough atmosphere," said midfielder Clyde Simms to mlsnet.com of the 2-0 away defeat. "The crowd was good for them and it's always tough playing those international games -- you're playing against a team that you're not used to seeing and don't know much about."
In the quarterfinals last year, Marathon came up against Puerto Rico Islanders, which advanced to the semis by winning the away leg, 1-0, and prevailing, 2-1, at home.
"We did it last year and now we'll do it again this year so maybe people will start to believe a little bit more," said Islanders coach Colin Clarke, formerly the head coach of FC Dallas. The Islanders and Crew are drawn in Group C with Cruz Azul of Mexico and Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica in what is regarded as the toughest quartet.
Columbus hosts Puerto Rico in the first group game Tuesday (7 p.m. ET, FSC) on a roll of five straight league victories and eight games unbeaten. In the last win, a 2-0 defeat of FC Dallas Saturday, midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto played the last few minutes after missing a month of action due to a hamstring strain.
"It's great to have him back," said midfielder Robbie Rogers, who has been taking some of the set plays in Schelotto's absence and hit a corner kick that Chad Marshall headed home for the first goal against Dallas. "I don't know if he's 100 percent. He's 36. He's got to be careful to get his strength and fitness back. When he's back we'll be even better."
Right back Frankie Hejduk sat out the Dallas game because of a right quad strain and probably won't be available until next week. Islanders' goalkeeper Bill Guadette played three seasons (2005-07) with the Crew.
Columbus last played in a Concacaf competition in 2003, when it defeated Arabe Unido of Panama in the first round and lost to Mexican club Morelia in the Concacaf Champions' Cup quarterfinals.
Tuesday -- Columbus vs. Puerto Rico Islanders; UNAM (Mexico) vs. Communicaciones (Guatemala), Marathon (Honduras) vs. D.C. United.
Wednesday -- Houston vs. Isidro Metapan (El Salvador), Arabe Unido (Panama) vs. Pachuca (Mexico), Cruz Azul (Mexico) vs. Saprissa (Costa Rica).
Thursday -- San Juan Jabloteh (T&T) vs Toluca (Mexico ), Real Espana (Honduras) vs W Connection (T&T).
Group A -- Houston, Arabe Unido, Pachuca, Metapan.
Group B -- San Juan Jabloteh, Toluca, D.C. United, Marathon.
Group C -- Columbus, Puerto Rico Islanders, Cruz Azul, Deportivo Saprissa.
Group D -- UNAM, Communicaciones, Real Espana, W Connection.