As one of only two MLS teams to win a Concacaf club title, D.C. United carries a heavier burden than most of its counterparts every time it embarks on another quest.
Granted, that lone title occurred 17 years ago and didn’t impose the extensive travel to hostile venue demanded by the current format, but still that 1998 triumph at RFK Stadium, where all three games were played, marked United as a presence in the region. Since the change in name from Concacaf Champions Cup to Concacaf Champions League, the tournament has instituted a group phase leading up to the knockout rounds, and this time United is only U.S.-based MLS representative to reach the last eight.
“The current format is much more difficult than the previous one,” says head coach Ben Olsen, who was a rookie on the United team that won the Concacaf Champions Cup staged in Washington. “This is a very important tournament for our players and the club has an appreciation for it.”
The knockout phase for D.C. United starts Thursday (Fox Sports 2, Univision Deportes, 8 p.m. ET) in Costa Rica, where it takes on Alajuelense in the first leg of their quarterfinal series. As usual, United will meet an opponent already into its league schedule while still wrapping up preseason preparations.
“We are working hard to be ready,” Olsen told CONCACAF.com. “It’s not easy, but this is an experienced group that has CONCACAF experience and is set up to succeed.”
United hasn’t been in the regional club tournament since the 2009-10 season, for which it qualified by winning the 2008 U.S. Open Cup, but several players on its roster have played in the competition for other teams. Attacker Fabian Espindola was a member of the RSL squad that lost an agonizing two-leg final to Mexican club Monterrey in 2011, and defenders Bobby Boswell (Houston) and Sean Franklin (LA Galaxy) are among other veterans of the knockout rounds. Boswell scored for the Dynamo in its quarterfinal series against Atlante in 2009.
“We need to get some good rest and know that we have to go there and do our good job,” said Espindola on the United Web site. “It’s just two games, that’s it. The last game is at RFK so we need to go and have a good result on the road.”
Ex-Columbus forward Jairo Arrieta brings an intimate knowledge of the foe as well as the stadium, Alejandro Morera Soto. He was claimed by Orlando City in the MLS Expansion Draft and traded to D.C. last month in exchange for an international roster slot. The Costa Rican native played six seasons for Alajuelense’s bitter rival Saprissa prior to joining the Crew and opposed RSL in the 2010-11 semifinals.
“I am sure Jairo has been talking to the guys about what it’s like playing there,” said Olsen. “But I think our guys know what to expect and they will embrace it.”
Arrieta scored a goal and set one up for Conor Doyle in preseason games prior to the team’s departure for Costa Rica. “It was great,” Arrieta said. “But now I need some more in Costa Rica.”
Olsen’s focus is on his team, yet he knows what these games mean for MLS in the bigger picture. There are three Costa Rican teams still alive in the competition, and they regard this edition as do the MLS representatives; very winnable, with only two Mexican teams, Pachuca and Cruz Azul, still alive.
Concacaf participants do get a dollop of allocation money from MLS to bolster their rosters, but according to sources it is in the very low six figures. Olsen says, “It’s not that much. You get some for Concaacf and you can pick some up every now and then. But it goes quick.”
The timing couldn’t be stranger, with contentious discussions regarding a new collective bargaining agreement nearing the critical stage. MLS teams struggle in the knockout phase partially due to scheduling, but if the league is expecting better performances in regional play, it must also address the stark issue of how much talent and experience an MLS team needs to knock off the top regional rivals.
“The quality of play has to move forward at a quicker rate,” said Olsen in a telephone interview. “How that gets done, that’s not my expertise. I’ve got my opinions but I think the quality of play just has to continue to rise. With expansion, it’s a tough thing to do, so how is that problem solved?
“I’m hopeful the CBA will address some of that stuff. That should be the focus from the competitive side, so we can now start to win Concacaf and put a competitive brand on the field.”