DC United Prevails in Penalties Over Firpo

Having tied the home leg last week after giving up a precious away goal, DC United had to score at least one to negate the away goal they gave up against Firpo in RFK, and they did just that as the teams traded goals with the Salvadoran power in the first half, before penalty kicks decided the match after extra time.

Nothing like eating crow! And I will take seconds please. With their backs against the wall, DC United trotted into El Salvador on very little rest and played their absolute best players for as long as they could stay upright, and in the case of Christian Gomez, he stayed upright long enough to not only score the tying goal in the match, but the series winning penalty kick as well.

Anyone who assumed United was taking this qualifying match lightly, myself included, was slapped down hard as DC United played their absolute best players almost from start to finish, and all the nay-sayers who think Christian Gomez is washed up were embarrassed once again as he not only played the entire 120 minute match, but he scored DC’s all important tying goal as well as the winning penalty that saw the team through this difficult preliminary match-up with Firpo.

The match was pretty much a midfield struggle throughout as both teams pressed to assert themselves in what turned out to be a very evenly played match.

Firpo established the early pressure, but was thwarted as Salvadoran National team midfielder, Dennis Alas missed a golden shot set up for him in the 33rd minute.

Unfortunately, United defender Marc Burch was to hobble the Black and Red as he gave up a foolish FK along the sideline, and then exacerbated his mistake with a wayward arm on Alas’s freekick into the area that gave up a PK for Firpo in the 38th minute.

CD L.A. Firpo forward Leandro Franco took a sketchy spot kick where he paused before stroking his shot into net after United keeper Josh Wicks had jumped, but his trickery was short lived as DC roared right back to score the all important away goal that swung the match in their favor.

Barely into the 41st minute, United’s Santino Quaranta slalomed 40 yards before being brought down barely 5 yards outside the Firpo penalty area. In exquisite Christian Gomez territory, United’s mercurial playmaker curled a perfect shot over the wall and off the desperate goalkeeper’s flailing hands to tie the match.

The second half and most of the overtime periods were to be pretty uneventful outside of Fred getting a dubious red card on a relatively innocuous challenge. Still, even down to 10 men, DC had no trouble keeping a tight handle on the match, even if they did not manage the winning goal in regulation.

However, PK’s were to be United’s just results as no United player was to miss, while Firpo captain and El Salvadoran National team central defender Noel Salazar blasted his spot kick well over the bar leaving the door open for Burch and Gomez to seal DC United’s trip into the group stage of the CONCACAF Champion’s League.

DC will start group play in a mere two weeks as CONCACAF group play is scheduled to start in the midweek around August 19th. DC will face Toluca of Mexico and Marathon of Honduras as well as likely San Francisco of Panama in that very tough group.

DC United returns to MLS play next Saturday against Toronto FC in Toronto, but has an exhibition match against Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid coming up next weekend.

DC United Face Fatigue and Failure at Firpo

No rest for the decrepit apparently as United drags their poor overworked bodies down to El Salvador to play Firpo, where no doubt more excuses about the cruel fates that force them to such extremes as playing two games a week in hot, steamy conditions will abound after a cruel loss or scoreless tie eliminates them from CONCACAF Champions League.

Not that I have any sympathy at all for them by the way. DC United knew this schedule for months, almost certainly even had a hand in creating it in fact, as I’d bet DC wanted the expense of extra days in Houston or San Salvador, or even worse two extra flights had they come home in between, to be eliminated by playing this match Tuesday as opposed to Wed, or Thurs.

Even worse, Soehn exacerbated United’s roster problems by using up virtually all of the team’s ammunition in that Houston debacle. Now, I thought for sure he’d have saved a few live loads for use in the match in El Salvador, but no, looks like he’s going with the pellet guns again. Silly me, when Soehn said he was going to “pick up the pieces” after the Houston match, I assumed that meant he was going to make some effort to make sure there would be some big pieces left over after the crash. Not detonate the team completely and then proceed to crush the residue with a hammer before going about piecing them back together for the knockout match with Firpo.

Let’s just see who played all 90 minutes in that lost cause in Houston. Pontius, Quaranta, and Fred spring to mind immediately to begin with. That’s 3 out of the only 4 good wing players on the team. At least Wallace was suspended so he’s fresh anyway. Then there’s Jacobson and the entire starting defense. Granted, they are mostly young and hopefully fit, but I wonder how well they hold up against Firpo, especially as John got used 45 minutes too.

Let’s see, who else. Ah yes, the geriatric brigade was egregiously used up too. Moreno played 80 minutes, Gomez, Emilio and Olsen 45 each, so all of them were used instead of at least two of them rested completely. Now, I’d bet Gomez can go in El Salvador, and almost certainly Emilio too, but no chance Moreno will play more than spot duty if that. It’ll also be a miracle if Olsen’s creaky ankles allow him any minutes either. Nor can Soehn really take the risk to use either of those guys as starters, as this match could easily go 120 minutes, so you can’t play three or maybe four guys, none of whom can actually play the full 90 plus minutes.

Bottom line, that’s the top 12 players, not counting Wallace, who did not get rested. Leaving, you guessed it, the entire bottom half of the roster as the only completely fresh meat available to be shuffled in mixed and matched wherever on the field a body is needed. Apparently that worked so well last time, Soehn figured they’re sure to do better on the road in El Salvador, where even the US National team struggle to get wins.

Now, I hate to harp on this, but seriously, very little thought seems to have gone into managing the roster for these two games properly. Houston was a stone cold loss from the get go, and N’Silu should have been the player off the bench in that one, not Emilio two goals or not. Plus, overusing Moreno was a waste, as was under-using Olsen. He should have stayed out there, yellow card and all because he’s far more likely to have had an impact on that match, then he is to be able to recover enough to do anything at all in this one. Frankly, he shouldn’t even have been started at all, and saved for this match for that matter, but I digress. Now be assured, I will gladly eat my words if Soehn somehow gets a win or a tie greater than 1-1, but for the life of me I can’t see how that will happen.

Still, latent furies aside for the moment, let’s see what we’ve got to work with, starting from the top. N’Silu is the only forward fresh as a daisy, but his early yank last time will hardly send shudders into Firpo when he trots back out there. So, I think Soehn has to go with Emilio and Quaranta up top. The only good thing about using Emilio in that lost cause in Houston was he got off the shneid in a big way with two goals, and he’s a streaky scorer. He also scored in United’s only CONCACAF win in central America ever, over his old team Olimpia.

On that theme, I think Gomez has to start too. He scored twice in that 4-1 win over Olimpia and I say try to recreate as many good vibes from that long ago win as possible, since there’s precious little else United ever wants to relive in Central America. The team is 1-5 after all and outscored 16-4. Yep, that’s right. They’ve been shutout every other time they have played in Central America, and most of them were pretty whopping loses as 16 goals given up in six games will attest. (Edit: DC is actually 1-6 in Central America in CONCACAF Cup play, I forgot one of the Chivas losses. And DC scored in that one too, so that makes the goal differential actually 18-5, not that it’s much comfort. Thanks for the email pointing that out.)

As for the rest of midfield, it’s quite a bit trickier. Well, Wallace is a no-brainer on the left, but Firpo will be prepared for him as he was one of the most threatening players DC had when DC faced them last week. The rest of the midfield is a quandary though as really only Szetela, DiRaimondo and McTavish are fresh, and only Szetela was even remotely presentable the last time DC faced Firpo, so Pontius or Fred is going to have to suck it up and play that right side if Soehn expects anything from this match. I suspect they will each play a half.

As for the rest of midfield, I think Soehn probably tipped his hand in Houston with that switch to 4-4-2, because it’s a good idea to run out that formation again. It should save a lot of running backward by the outside players and also lessen the space tired defenders are expected to cover, as well as give Soehn a bigger variety of options when it comes time to substitute. So, that means Szetela plays behind Gomez to complete midfield as he’s the only player able to fill that role adequately given the situation.

Defensively, John should be fine, Burch and Jakovic too, although things will get awfully dicey if the match goes into overtime and Namoff will almost certainly need to be subbed at some point. But let’s face it, if DC doesn’t score right out of the gate, this match is almost certainly over and it’s just a death march until the end anyway.

Plus defensively, four in the back gives DC more cover against the strength of Firpo which is clearly in their attackers. That Benitez is obviously tricky and good, as well as the Brazilian Leandro Franco. That extra defender will help keep those two under wraps. At the same time, the loss of a player in midfield for DC shouldn’t be too much trouble as Firpo is not particularly fast in their buildup or very elusive in their transition game, so Szetela with a reasonable amount of help from Gomez should be enough.

Christian Gomez really is the key too. He has always been the fiery force in international games to the point of literally carrying the team against much tougher opponents than Firpo. He almost single-handedly beat Catolica, as well as kept DC afloat against Pumas with the goal in that 1-1 draw at home that could have been much worse (and was hideously worse when United played the return match a week later). Big games, playoffs, whatever, Gomez almost always shows up huge. This is a big one and if he shows up big and the rest of the team rallies around him, and a suddenly hot Emilio, DC has a good shot.

Bottom line, that gives DC the best chance to win, or at least get a lead early and put Firpo on their heels chasing the game. Then, Soehn still has Moreno to come in late to hold up the ball if DC is winning or N’Silu, who might benefit from coming off the bench, come in if United needs a spark. Then, there’s McTavish, DiRaimondo or maybe even Ely Allen able to come in for a variety of positions depending on injury or exhaustion. Not saying that’s what Soehn will do, but it’s probably the best chance to save his bacon in this tournament.

In the unlikely event DC actually does advance, they will enter one of the toughest groups for the next phase of the tournament, but more on that later should it come to that. Ironically, if DC does make the supreme effort and pulls off a pretty unlikely upset given the current situation, their reward is mostly pride and a very difficult three months to end the season with 6 more tough regional games and travel added to their schedule.

So it would certainly be easy to punt and get some extra rest to concentrate on MLS, but I will be wildly disappointed if the team pulls another el foldo in CONCACAF. I would hate to think DC has become a team that looks for the easy way out, instead of going for success every time they take the field.

Also, I’m a little bummed the match isn’t going to be played in Firpo’s actual home stadium. True, it would be extra travel to Usulutan and sketchy accommodations probably, maybe a little Salvadoran project mayhem too. But, how classic it would have been to say DC once won in the “Devil’s Cauldron”, as their home Estadio Sergio Torres is called, and in front of 5,000 fanatical Pamperos too! Now that’s the beauty of this tournament. Not playing in a gigantic stadium, probably only 25 percent filled if that, because it is where their rival Alianza FC plays its home matches.

Ah well, maybe next time. Oh, and in case you’re curious, San Francisco of Panama won their home leg 2-0 over San Juan Jabloteh of Trinidad and obviously has the inside track for reaching the group stage to complete United’s group should the Black and Red indeed advance.

DC United Looking to Knockout L.A. Firpo

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.