Commentary

The song remains the same in Concacaf Champions League

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

No Bill Hamid, no Perry Kitchen, no Chris Pontius, no Jairo Arrieta, no Davy Arnaud.

A year after starting the knockout phase of the Concacaf Champions League with those men in the lineup for one or both of the quarterfinal legs, D.C. United on Tuesday played Mexican club Queretaro with none of them on the game-day roster. Hamid and Arnaud missed the game because of injuries, the other three have moved on. The names have changed, but the results have not.

Last year, Alajuelense rolled to a 5-2 victory in Costa Rica on its way to a 6-4 triumph on aggregate. On Tuesday, United battled on mostly even terms for most of the 90 minutes yet came away with a 2-0 defeat that leaves it, once again, with a major task in its home leg.

Myriad differences can be cited in regards to these two games, yet several parallels are almost eerie. A classy strike by forward Fabian Espindola gave United some hope in Costa Rica and a goal by defender Steve Birnbaum in the 89th minute cut the deficit to 4-2, but incredibly Jonathan Macdonald replied for Alajuelense just seconds after the kickoff to restore a three-goal edge, which proved to be more than enough at RFK.

So what happened Tuesday in Queretaro? Several decent chances fell to Birnbaum -- whose goal and assist enabled the USA to beat Iceland, 3-2, last month -- but he couldn’t put away any of them. Taylor Kemp, another veteran of the Alajuelense series, rattled a shot off the crossbar. Keeper Tiago Volpi rescued Queretaro with a couple of excellent saves, including a swatted clearance of a ball about to cross the goal line. Espindola struggled to test the Queretaro back line and the insertion of his former RSL teammate, Alvaro Saborio, didn’t spark the attack.

For the second leg next week at RFK United is down by only two goals but does not have an away goal in the bank. If it concedes even one at home, it needs to win by at least three goals to prevail. If Queretaro loses the second leg by 3-1, 4-2, etc., it advances on the away-goals rule. In five CCL matches, United has yet to beat a Mexican team.

So the shortest-term future is grim. What about the long-term?

A sharp performance by Argentine newcomer Luciano Acosta, a River Plate product signed to a one-year loan, gives hope that he can be the attacking catalyst the team has been searching for since Cristian Gomez left the team in 2009. Other players -- Pontius, Espindola, Andy Najar, Fred – have provided impetus primarily from wide areas, and though Chris Rolfe can create chances as well as finish them, he’s not a go-to playmaker. Acosta played 76 minutes. 

Among the many concerns for United heading down to Mexico centered on keeper Andrew Dykstra, who has played only 13 MLS matches in four seasons for D.C. as Hamid’s backup but did man the nets in its CCL group games. Queretaro broke the game open when Yerson Candelo nailed a wickedly swerving shot into the top corner and got the crucial second goal when a ball over the dropped to Edgar Benitez, who pinged it between Dykstra and the near post from point-blank range.

Getting beat to the near post is one of those cardinal sins of goalkeeping that in certain cases isn’t applicable but Dykstra didn’t set himself in a good spot and could only stick out his right foot in desperation as the ball skipped past him. Unlike Volpi when his team needed a big save Dykstra didn’t come through. Such moments define results in intense competitions such as the CCL. Hamid won't be back until midseason at the earliest yet Dykstra has done enough to earn the confidence of his teammates. 

The cardinal sin in this situation, of course, was surrendering such a great opportunity in the first place. Queretaro took its 1-0 lead in the 71st minute with an incredible strike and given the difficulties of fatigue and altitude that’s when United could have tightened up to prevent further damage.

Head coach Ben Olsen brought on another newcomer, SuperDraft pick Julian Buescher, to replace Acosta and shore up the midfield but nobody could stop Sinha from lobbing the ball over the leap of Bobby Boswell as Queretaro breached United’s offside trap.

The lessons to be learned go beyond the difficulties of playing in-form Mexican teams during the MLS preseason. As United showed last year, playing any good Concacaf team at this stage of the year presents problems and going to a place like Queretaro (elevation about 6,000 feet) turns the last 20-25 minutes into a torture chamber of burning lungs and screaming leg muscles.

Under Olsen, United plays a hustling, scrappy style that holds up well in MLS but can be exposed in CCL play. Few MLS teams have the skillful personnel to ride out intervals of sustained pressure imposed by game-sharp opponents and when preseason fatigue sets in, the most valiant efforts can fall short.

As a tune up for the MLS season, two games against a solid Mexican team is ideal preparation, assuming United can avoid injuries. This is not the objective but most likely is the outcome.

“Overall, I’m pleased with the performance of our group, and I think we’re better for having come down here and having this game and good effort," said Olsen. ‘I’m disappointed again with giving up that second goal. I think a draw or a 1-0 loss would have been a fairer result, but this is sport. Now, we have to go back to D.C. and score a couple of goals of our own.”

In the big picture, the entire 90 minutes, Olsen is correct. But Queretaro finished its chances, and the match, strongly. It did get what it deserved.

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