After a disastrous showing in the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League and coming off a pretty disappointing tie in San Jose in MLS play a mere three days ago, DC United clearly wants a return to their winning ways against a team from a smaller federation. But CD Firpo should not be taken lightly, especially as RFK will almost certainly be awash in El Salvadoran blue, meaning home field might not actually be an advantage for the Black and Red.
DC United finished last in their Champions League group last year, and didn’t even make the MLS playoffs, but they got a chance to redeem themselves in this tournament anyway by virtue of winning the US Open Cup in the high water mark of that tumultuous 2008 campaign. Although they do have to get past CD Firpo in this last preliminary series in order to enter the group stage of the tournament.
Firpo, on the other hand had an even more intriguing road to this tournament. They did not qualify at all in fact, but were invited by CONCACAF when Chalatenango of El Salvador essentially refused to participate by not turning in to CONCACAF a signed agreement for participation. Firpo, by virtue of their having the second-best cumulative record among the runners-up in the El Salvadoran Apertura and Clausura championships, was given the first opportunity to accept as the second seeded team from El Salvador. But, lucky to have got into the tournament or not, Firpo clearly has the pedigree to upset DC United if they are not careful.
In the past 20 years aside from their 9 domestic championships, Firpo have put together about as impressive a record as any team from one of the smaller confederations in Central America. They twice finished in the top three of the CONCACAF Cup Winners Cup, and have plenty of regional success including wins over such regional powers as UNAM Pumas and Saprissa for example, two teams that United has struggled with over the years.
The El Salvadoran superclub nearly qualified for the knockout stages of this very tournament last year, only being edged out by Houston by a single point in the last match in arguably the second toughest group in the entire tournament. They finished 2-2-2 in the group stages last year, tying both Houston and Pumas at home, while United went winless and only managed a single point at Saprissa, albeit playing in the consensus group of death. So, clearly this is no pushover, even though Firpo is from a lesser league and only recently into their pre-season.
Still, United is not really in much of a position to take advantage of superior fitness or, presumably talent, as the Black and Red have just returned from a debilitating tie against the Earthquakes, where they lost a two goal lead. So have had that failure hanging over their heads for the long flight back, as well as precious little time to recover, much less practice for a game barely 72 hours later. Plus, some key injuries and absences have reared up eating into United’s depth at a really bad time.
So, despite the fact this team is far deeper than the wafer thin side that was mercilessly shredded last year, DC will still have to manage some minutes for some players and hope that some newcomers are ready for the challenge of international competition. Yet at the same time Soehn has to get as many experienced veterans on the field as possible for this crucially important first leg at home. And that will be tough considering the loss of Simms to hernia surgery, Khumalo to wrist surgery, as well as the unlikelihood of Quaranta playing after his playing 15 shell shocked minutes in the US loss Sunday.
Among the other veterans of international competition, Olsen almost certainly will not play much as he looked raggedy in SJ and his ankles surviving a five hour flight and a short recovery turnaround on top of that seems a bit beyond the pale. Gomez, Emilio, Fred, and Namoff all played most of the match and will likely need some sort of rest as well.
Unfortunately, the vaunted rookies are looking a bit sketchy of late and might be in need of some rest as well. Compounding matters, N’Silu ominously didn’t even make the travel squad to SJ, so he might be of no help for the weary. Especially for Pontius who has not looked good for a couple weeks, but given the situation likely will have to soldier on. In addition, the untimely loss of Barklage to knee surgery right when he looked like he was becoming a very useful player indeed is another body blow to the roster depth.
Still, Moreno only played less than a half in SJ, so he should be a lock to start, and his smooth confidence might be crucial to getting a result as it might be a bit of a sandlot mix of young and old, new and experienced that Tommy throws out there. For instance, newcomer Danny Szetela, who had a very nice debut in central midfield in San Jose is a likely candidate to start barely a week after being signed. Yet, while few DC players looked good at the end of that SJ match, Szetela was one of them as the midfield defense and play overall picked up noticeably after he came on for Olsen.
So, it seems likely that as much as people would like to see United’s best take the field, it will almost certainly be a mixture of starters and reserves with veterans splitting time. Hopefully, that’s enough against a Firpo team that has just begun it’s pre-season a couple weeks ago and has few recognizable players.
As for a little history on Firpo or “Los Toros”, they are widely considered the oldest club in El Salvador, being founded in 1923 as “Tecun Uman”, but almost immediately the team was re-named in homage to a colorful Argentine boxer, Luis Angel Firpo, who became a Latin American legend the very month the Salvadoran club was founded in 1923 by knocking the heavyweight champion of the world Jack Dempsey right out of the ring in a legendary title fight that was to spark almost universal acclaim for the hulking South American fighter.
Apparently Firpo, known as “The Wild Bull of the Pampas” (hence Los Toros, or sometimes Los Pamperos, nickname for CD Firpo) was the first and still only Latin American to challenge for the heavyweight title, but the character he showed and the way way he handled that title fight made him a symbol of pride for a lot of Latin Americans.
That day in 1923 in the Polo Grounds in New York, Firpo and Dempsey engaged in what is still considered one of the wildest and most entertaining fights in boxing history. Standing toe to toe pummeling each other viciously right from the get go, Firpo knocked Dempsey down seconds into the fight, then was knocked down himself seven times, but persevered to knock Dempsey right out of the ring. Only to see the champion be helped back into the ring to barely a beat a suspiciously long count, and go on to knock Firpo out cold in the second round.
Apparently, that powerful display of might and perseverance, only to be cheated and ultimately denied seemed to resonate so intensely with the founders of CD Firpo that they used his name for their sporting club despite his being from a country on a different continent. Now, you’ve gotta love CONCACAF. There’s such incredible backstories to the teams in this region. Shoe stores and laundry mishaps, monsters and boxers – seriously it doesn’t get any better than this when researching international teams that DC is about to face!
This isn’t the first time DC has faced CD Firpo either. In 1996, as part of the deal to sign Raul Diaz Arce with MLS from Firpo, DC United agreed to host Firpo in an exhibition in RFK. United won that day 2-1 after falling behind, but Jaime Moreno equalized when his cross was knocked for an own goal and Marco Etcheverry set up John Maessner with an easy finish in the second half to win it.
The second leg will take place August 4th in El Salvador with the away goals rule being in effect. So, keeping things tight in the back is imperative, even though that has been a serious Achilles heel for this team as the painful tie in San Jose can attest. But, given the fact that Firpo had little trouble tying Pumas or the Dynamo last year in El Salvador, expecting a result there is not the way to go into this match.
Should United advance, they will enter the group consisting of Toluca, who DC beat for the 1998 CONCACAF Title, and Marathon of Honduras, who cruised over DC easily in the group stage last year. Completing the group will be the winner of San Juan Jabloteh (Trinidad) and San Francisco (Panama). The six group matches begin in mid August and go until late October.