Washington, D.C., February 25, 2015 – There was plenty to be encouraged about during most of D.C. United’s match on the road in Querataro, Mexico on Tuesday evening in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal matchup. Despite it being the first game in anger in 2015 for the Black-and-Red and also playing at 6,000 feet altitude, United acquitted themselves much better than anyone was expecting through the first 70 minutes of the match.
Unfortunately soccer matches are 90 minutes long and a pair of goals from Yerson Candelo and Edgar Benitez thirteen minutes apart late in the match put the Mexican side up 2-0 and in the drivers seat before the return leg at RFK Stadium on Tuesday evening.
United were not without their chances to spoil the party however. After a very suspect preseason in Florida in which the results weren’t exactly eye opening, United put the sword to the home side only to see their goalkeeper Tiago Volpi pull off his best Bill Hamid impersonation. Volpi came up with a number of saves at point-blank range, three alone on United defender Steve Birnbaum, to keep his side in the game.
United were predictably cautious in the games first twenty minutes but then went on to garner most of the games most dangerous chances over the next 50 minutes. Volpi easily claimed a number of long-range efforts from United (9 shots on goal total) during that span but it was his pair of double-saves and a kindly crossbar that kept United from taking a surprise lead.
Luciano Acosta’s 20-yard effort late in the first half was well saved by Volpi only to see the rebound come to Fabian Espindola who’s low shot was also smothered by Volpi. Fast forward to the second half and Taylor Kemp nearly scored the goal of his life in the 60th minute. Kemp, who is more left-footed than even the legendary Marco Etcheverry at times, cut inside from his left back position and unleashed a 24-yard curling right-footed rocket that had Volpi beat by a mile only to see the crossbar keep the ball out of the net.
A few minutes later Volpi once again pulled off his double-magic when he thwarted a Birnbaum header from 6 yards out from a Nick DeLeon throw in. Birnbaum reacted quicker than his defending counterpart and lashed a left-footed blast that Volpi barely got a paw on to send out for a corner kick.
This was the height of United’s frustration on the evening. First game of the season, high altitude and quickly tiring players meant that United had effectively wasted any opportunity of getting a solid result to take back to DC.
Sure enough, less than two minutes later the home side were ahead when Yerson Candelo unleashed an unstoppable shot from 20 yards out that gave goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra no chance. Substitute Rob Vincent seemed hesitant to close out Candelo and by the time Dykstra saw the shot, it was too late.
That goal effectively took whatever wind was left in United’s sails and they gave up a bad goal in the 83rd minute with some tired defending. Rookie midfielder Julian Bueschler was inexplicably inattentive when Mexican maestro Sinha had the ball near midfield. The Brazilian born Mexican international turned towards United’s goal but Bueschler turned the other direction and allowed Querataro’s playmaker to loft a pass over a surprisingly high defensive line from United. Sean Franklin made an attempt to head the ball clear but was not anywhere near close enough to stop the run from midfielder Edgar Benitez who ghosted in on goal and beat Dykstra to his near post for the 2-0 lead.
While a 2-0 lead is not the end of the world, a 1-0 deficit would have been slightly easier to overturn in Washington. As it stands, if United can put forth a similar effort, there is no reason to believe they can’t overturn the lead with some better finishing.
Perhaps the most impressive thing that one could take from Tuesday’s nights effort was that United had 9 shots on goal in a road match in Mexico. You could have totaled up United’s last five road games in MLS last season and they wouldn’t have totaled 9 shots on goal. Hell, you can even throw in the home leg against Red Bull at RFK last November too (they had zero shots on goal in that game).
You can attribute this to the addition of Acosta to United’s lineup. He’s a game-changer folks. He won’t put up Giovinco-type numbers but he will most definitely affect games in MLS this season. That in itself is a reason to be a little optimistic. Let’s be honest here, how many of us were expecting a similar result to what we witnessed last winter in Saprissa?
Granted a 2-goal deficit is not going to be easy considering that Querataro will most likely put numbers behind the ball and force United to break them down. Not exactly a strength of recent D.C. United squads. However, perhaps the performance in Mexico on Tuesday night has changed the mentality of this group of players.
It remains to be seen..