Last year’s Stupidliga as well as the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League shattered United’s undefeated record against their south of the border rivals, but the Black and Red get a chance to begin rebuilding their aura of invincibility against the very team that DC defeated for their first international trophy and launch the team into the upper class in CONCACAF.
Of course things were a lot different in 1998 when United defeated Deportivo Toluca FC for the CONCACAF Champions Cup. First and foremost, DC United was about as dominant a team as any in MLS history that year, while Toluca was in their pre-season, as was Leon who they beat a few days earlier in the semifinals. Plus there was no away match to worry about back then, the entire single elimination tournament was played in comfy confines of RFK.
This year DC is hurtling down the MLS table like a mudpack breaking loose in a hurricane and was blown out in their previous CCL match last week against Marathon in Honduras. Plus, DC has to juggle their roster to rest up for future away matches as well as a tough schedule in MLS and an Open Cup final to boot.
So, while the trophy in 1998 was a turning point in United and MLS history, I would submit that a win tomorrow night against Toluca would actually be a much greater feat in the grand scheme of the universe, and soccer gods willing might just stiffen up their resolve and reverse their current trend towards one arcing upward to the playoffs and restoring international respectability.
It is ironic that Toluca and their coach Jose Manuel de la Torre are the opponent in this crucial match because the “Red Devils” have only faced one MLS team ever and it was that loss right here in RFK 12 years ago, and their coach “Chepo” has even more recent unpleasant memories than that. He coached in RFK twice in 2007 when he was in charge of Chivas de Guadalajara, and not only did he not win either match, he was actually fired for losing to United in the first leg of a Copa Sud-Americana match.
(Another interesting coaching coincidence is that Enrique “little eyes” Meza was the coach of Toluca back in 1998, and he also lost in RFK coaching Pachuca early in 2008 in what was to turn about to be the high point of United’s international matches last season. Also, Meza now coaches Cruz Azul in this tournament in group C.)
But bad mojo is about the only thing Toluca has to worry about unfortunately. The Red Devils won the 2008 Apertura and are far from pre-season form this time around entering this match undefeated and on a five game winning streak in the Mexican league including dismantling Santos 3-0 over the weekend.
Toluca haven’t even given up a goal in almost a month shutting out their last four league opponents, as well as edged San Juan Jabloteh in Panama 1-0 a week ago in their first CCL match. Their legendary keeper, the 40 year old Argentine Hernan Cristante is a big reason for the shutouts and he reportedly single-handedly beat the Panamanians, but clearly Toluca’s defense is rock solid as well.
Offensively things are even worse for DC. Playmaker and captain Antonio Naelson, called “Sinha”, is about as good as it gets in Mexico. 18 year old forward phenomenon Raul Nava scored against Jabloteh and with Carlos Esquivel and Nestor Calderon form a dynamic attack that is truly frightening should they all take the field. Even worse, Last year’s Mexican league leading scorer Hector Mancilla came in as a sub last week after returning from injury, so wishing for the bench to play might not be exactly a good idea either.
All things considered, quite possibly United’s best chance against Toluca is that the Mexicans might be feeling so comfortable having an all important road win under their belt already that they can take this game a bit lightly. Who could blame them either? Considering United’s pitiful recent form and even more futile CCL performance last season, it would be easy for anyone not associated with DC to consider United the worst team in the group despite their vaunted pedigree.
There’s no doubt the naysayers will be right too if Soehn trots out as stupid a lineup as he threw to the wolves in Honduras. I think it’s safe to say Janicki will not take the field, but beyond that who knows? Apparently, United’s fragile starters become winded at the mere thought of two games a week, so if Soehn goes to form, he may well punt this one too and rest up his big guns for the trip to Chicago Saturday. Especially after that galling tie against LA, MLS points are becoming ever more rare and valuable.
Interestingly, Soehn has a chance to throw another newbie signing right into the fire as Tiyi Shipalane just arrived on loan from D2 Harrisburg City Islanders. He would join wing Ely Allen, and defenders Julius James and David Habarugira who got their first action in Honduras days after being signed last week. Welcome to MLS, son! Good luck! You’re just playing the nine time Mexican champions a few days after you were knocked out of the D2 playoffs, shouldn’t too much of an adjustment for you.
Another thought that comes to mind is that Soehn was so public and so adamant about Janicki being pretty much the sole reason for the result against Marathon, he may well trot pretty much the same defensive lineup, minus the judas of course, expecting home field advantage to push them even higher and give them a chance against the Mexicans. I think that’s a recipe for disaster but hey, maybe they pull it off for Temperamental Tommy.
Looking at the players who played the full 90 versus LA: Emilio, Quaranta, Fred, Simms, Wallace, Namoff, Jakovic, and Burch, it seems a safe bet none of them take the field except in emergency duty, so Tommy can feel fully justified in playing virtually his entire second team.
Fortunately, his second team did get a little bit stronger with the return to health of Pontius and maybe even with the signing of Shipalane as he’s a big, decently fast wide player (or forward) who should allow Pontius to play forward alleviating the pinch felt by Boyzzz and N’Silu’s extended absences. Plus, he allows McTavish to play in the defense where he is maybe a bit more comfortable, even though he had the go ahead goal stolen from him in Honduras by a ridiculous save of his spectacular diving header.
Going on Soehn’s pattern from the Marathon match, he seems likely to go with a 4-4-2 again given the personnel available, and considering the attacking talent Toluca will throw at United’s defenses.
All of which means I fully expect to see Pontius, Moreno, Allen, Olsen, Jacobson, Shipalane, John, James, Habarugira, and McTavish start the match. Subs would be Gomez coming in for Olsen, and Quaranta for Moreno if necessary. Maybe Wallace is asked to bite the bullet and play the left, because Allen did not look too good against Marathon either, but I doubt it. Maybe Szetela is out of the doghouse and starts instead of Olsen too, but I think that is an even bigger longshot.
Still, speculation aside no matter who plays DC really needs to recapture some of that old magic that has managed results against international competition in RFK even during the lean years. Obviously a win would be ideal, if a bit less likely than Soehn admitting a mistake, but a tie would be a fabulous result given the situation. Even a one goal loss wouldn’t be fatal out of hand. However, another multi-goal loss and this CCL is as dead as last year’s and it will be at least another year before there’s another chance to shine United’s tarnished international reputation.
Marathon leads the group with 3 points and +2 goal differential. Toluca is second with 3 as well, but +1 GD, although they have the only away win in the entire tournament so far. DC and Jabloteh each have no points, but the Panamanians are at -1 GD, while DC brings up the rear at -2. Obviously, another multi-goal loss and DC is pretty much toast in the tournament. They would need big wins over Jabloteh, and a little help from others or some other even more unlikely scenario to advance out of the group.
United was 5-0-4 against Mexican teams in RFK until losing to Atlante, Chivas, and Cruz Azul last season. Discounting Stupidliga results, as befits a truly discerning fan, Cruz Azul is really the only team to crack RFK’s Mexican Magic in a real tournament. Toluca, a team and coach all slavering for revenge no doubt, might just maybe have a little doubt mewling in the back of their minds. That along with some overconfidence and maybe a little goose from the soccer gods might just be enough for RFK to regain some of its old invincibility and salvage a team teetering on the edge of respectability.
More likely it will be another painful loss and no doubt more moans about the crucial mistakes made, the cruel schedule, and bad calls will end the evening sourly. But hey, stranger things have happened. Lightning Rod Dyachenko and Franco Niell scored in RFK to beat Pachuca last year for the only loss they suffered in the entire CONCACAF Cup. Maybe another DC reserve steps up tomorrow night and proves that old Mexican Magic might not be all used up.