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DC Takes on Toluca and Tradition in Mexico

Well, for those of us that thought DC’s season was dead and buried, United stunned league leading Columbus Crew for a crucial win. Now, if they can merely become the first MLS team to ever win in Mexico, they would truly have worked a miracle given the way this roller coaster season has gone.

Unfortunately, that’s the Gorilla in the garage that is keeping DC from parking their jalopy out of the rain. Despite the euphoria of winning three straight in the CCL and holding the tie breaker over Marathon, DC is actually not a favorite to go through to the next round as Marathon has the far easier matchup in the last round playing in Trinidad against winless Jabloteh, while DC has to visit Toluca. Where Toluca in Estadio Nemesio Diez Riega is undefeated this season both in league play, and even more ominously in CONCACAF where they haven’t even given up a goal defeating Marathon 7-0 and Jabloteh 3-0.

So, bottom line, this will take an utter fluke. One of those shocking matches that dot world history like the US beating England in 1950, or Steve Sampson winning the double with LA in 2005. Something beyond imagination like DC winning the CONCACAF Cup in 1998 in their third year of existence, over hmmm… ah yes, wasn’t it Toluca? Yes, that’s right, the only MLS team ever to beat a Mexican team in a Cup final was indeed a DC United team led by the Bruce, so it is not without precedent.

Now, call me crazy, but I think this could actually be the right confluence of events for yet another miracle. No, I don’t mean DC will win in Mexico, steady yourselves bwana! Be serious! No, I mean that Marathon will lose in Trinidad. Mark my words, Jabloteh is better than their record to date and Marathon has not traveled well in CONCACAF (0-2 outscored 10-0 while Jabloteh is 0-2 at home, but twice barely losing 1-0 to DC, and more importantly, to Toluca). Plus, Jabloteh just won a huge match in their big six tournament away to Defense Force 5-4 with defender Noel Williams, who scored in Honduras against Marathon, getting a hat-trick.

As for DC, they have no chance in Toluca obviously, even if United were healthy and rested (which they are not) and Toluca’s team bus was gutted by a fire bomb (which of course is cruel to even think about, so I withdraw the analogy, although it does tantalize the mind in reference to Pumas and those cheating hacks from Cruz Azul. But enough of the despicable old testament eye for an eye side of my personality). Still, I almost wonder if this is the exactly the kind of situation that might see the first MLS win in Mexico. A situation where no MLS team has any right to expect to win, but a Mexican team has every expectation to not lose. Those are the banana peel matches as Ramblin’ Ray would say.

No MLS winners in 18 straight matches in Mexico by MLS teams, outscored 60-14, only Houston managing a wacky 4-4 tie at Pumas last year for the only point in Mexico ever. Even the consensus league best Crew got pummeled by Cruz Azul a couple weeks ago 5-0. But that hideous MLS losing streak in Mexico has to end sometime and my suspicion is it will be an MLS team way under the radar that breaks that string against a team that quite rightly should take the competition lightly. All of which sadly points to DC and a dominating Toluca side, but hey, flukes count just as much as deserved wins and DC will take it if Toluca is even close to offering it, and they might be ripe for a slip up.

For one thing, Toluca might well be coming down off their high horse. They are the only Mexican team who has not yet qualified, and they may think it is their due, but if DC beats them and Marathon wins in Trinidad by 4 or 5, Toluca could easily be the only team not to advance, as shocking as that would be. The sausage-makers are indeed nine time Mexican champions and undefeated at home this season, true, but have also tied their last two 1-1 against lowly Tigres and middling San Luis after starting the Mexican Clausura with five straight wins at home, so they are hardly invincible in their house.

They also have shown they will underestimate opponents in CONCACAF. After thumping Marathon in Mexico 7-0, they sent a reserve team, including I believe expecting to play a trainer and a masseuse, to Honduras and lost convincingly giving up an early PK and never coming close to getting back in the match. So after DC gifted them a goal in the first 5 minutes here in RFK, and Mancilla schooled DC’s defense embarrassingly for two late goals in their relatively easy win, it would be hard for them not to underestimate DC.

However, DC will be a far different team than the one that faced them earlier. For one thing, Namoff will not play and he had a howler in that first match coming in as a sub and opening a highway for Toluca down that right side. Plus, Burch, if he plays will not be a central defender so Mancilla can’t count on faking him out of his shorts either. No Ely Allen, Habarugira, etc. This DC will be light-years different even if Soehn rests some big guns.

Considering Pontius was suspended for the Crew, he should start alongside Emilio, who did not play in the first match with Toluca. Gomez, too should be able to play and he never kicked a ball against the Mexicans either and he is DC ‘s best ever player against international competition. Plus, while Fred and Wallace, who came in as a sub in central midfield, played against Toluca the first time, they will be supported by a much better team this time around.

Even better, defensively, Jakovic and James are creating a very tidy central partnership, and McTavish and Burch or John have been more than adequate lately. Now, DC played a 3-5-2 against the Crew, with McTavish in midfield, and god knows Soehn can be counted on to repeat a formation no matter how asinine, but you’d have to think he will know that a 3-5-2 with this current group of players against a wickedly dynamic Mexican team will fail unless he swaps out almost the entire midfield, but there you go. If he does that stop reading this article and move on towards the heavy drinking part of your evening and you might as well keep it going well into Wednesday.

As for said midfield, it might actually be a huge bonus that Olsen got that dastardly red card against Chivas because while that might have scuttled his DC United career at home, it leaves him well available for selection against a silly Mexican team where his experience could be invaluable. His ability to negate a very un-athletic, but incredibly deadly Sinha for example could be crucial to the match.

Bottom line is DC needs some divine intervention to win this one, but there is some reason to hope the soccer gods will be on their side. Now, far more likely is that the soccer gods will goose Jabloteh, but whatever, it all counts.

So, if DC wins, they are through to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League next spring. Even if DC ties or loses, they could go through if Marathon mirrors their tie or loss in Trinidad against Jabloteh, and I’m telling you that is not out of he question.

So cross your fingers tomorrow for DC if you must, but get down on your knees to pray for Jabloteh to win Thursday night.

As for some history about DC playing in Toluca, there’s some very interesting historical mojo for United if the soccer gods are willing to admit it. Estadio Nemesio Diez Riega, one of the oldest stadiums currently used in Mexico and nicknamed “La Bombonera”, is where Mexico was knocked out of the 1970 World Cup (at home!) in the quarterfinals by Italy 4-1, and its no coincidence that was the last time the Mexican National team played a world Cup match anywhere except the Azteca in Mexico City.

Estadio Nemesio Diez Riega is also named after the Toluca club president in 1953, the year the team won the second division and was promoted to the first division, and he remained in charge until 1972 overseeing the team’s first two Mexican league titles (1966-68), as well as their first Mexican Cup (1955) and CONCACAF (1968) titles.

He is also quite possibly the same man who was Vice chairman of Modelo Beer Inc. and the brainchild behind the Corona Beer that you and I guzzle by the truckload with our limes and our faint hopes about being cool. He also might be father of current club owner, Valetin Diez Morodo, too. All of which is not specifically verified, but quite possibility backed up by the name of current president Fernando Corona. I think so. Just too many coincidences in that for me to think otherwise.

As for nicknames, the “Red Devils” suit their red uniforms, but Choriceros truly suits their roots. That section of Mexico gained prominence very early in their history due to their incomparable meat products, especially chorizo which they invented and introduced back to Spain, so much so that Chorizo is almost synonymous with Toluca in Mexico, hence their nickname Choriceros, the sausage-makers.

One final thought is that Toluca was actually founded by Cortez in 1530 with a land grant from Charles V, the holy Roman Emperor, and named for the Aztec god “Tolo”. Tollocan literally means place of Tolo who was supposed to have occupied a nearby volcano. But that volcano has been considered extinct over the past few years, coincidentally the last time Toluca won a significant national trophy.

United rolls past San Juan Jabloteh 5-1

Christian Gomez and Boyzzz Khumalo both scored twice to lead D.C. United to an emphatic 5-1 win over San Juan Jabloteh FC last night at RFK Stadium. The win for United is their third consecutive in the competition and puts the Black and Red at the cusp of qualifying to the knockout stages next winter. A Toluca win tonight over Marathon in Honduras would assure the feat for United. If Marathon manages a tie or a win, United would have to either get an unlikely result in Toluca or hope that winless Jabloteh can somehow manage to upset Marathon in Trinidad. United holds the all-important tie-breaker over Marathon should the teams remain tied after the sixth and final group match.

Christian Gomez scored in the 13th and 68th minutes to get United rolling. Khumalo added his first goal in the 41st minute and his second in stoppage time at the end of the match. Fred also scored for United in the 30th minute in United’s comfortable win. Head coach Tom Soehn once again used a mostly reserve squad last night as United had three players suspended for cards and a number of veterans on the bench. United didn’t need any of them as the youthful legs won the day out. Rodney Wallace and David Habarugira paced up and down the flanks all night long giving Jabloteh all kinds of problems that never got solved. And when that was not enough, substitutes Ty Shipalane and Danny Szetela continued to create havoc all over the field.

United now faces their toughest match of the season when they face Chivas USA at RFK Stadium on Saturday evening. A win by United gets them right back into the thick of the playoff chase and could go a long way towards securing a playoff position. Fellow playoff hopefuls New England Revolution did United a big favor by dropping their league match in Dallas last night 1-0 behind red-hot Jeff Cunningham’s league leading 16th goal of the season. United remains one point behind the Revolution who travel to Colorado to play the Rapids at altitude.

United Notes

  • Jaime Moreno (red), Dejan Jakovic and Avery John (both yellows) were all suspended last night.
  • Bryan Namoff is still out with concussion symptoms. His return is still unknown
  • Josh Wicks looked like a car wreck survivor last night with knee and shoulder braces and crutches

DC United Host Jabloteh in Crucial CONCACAF Champions League Match

Now, DC’s MLS life might be hanging by a thread after that painful performance this weekend, but United’s international campaign is chugging along nicely as the Black and Red can turn their attention to a competition where things are going their way. With a win at home against the worst team in the group, DC has a golden opportunity for advancement into the knockout phases of the most prestigious tournament in the region.

Now, it does seem a bit presumptuous for United to be expecting any success considering they got hammered at home by one of the worst teams in MLS and are now hosting one of the absolute best teams in the entire Caribbean, but Jabloteh has had a pretty tough week themselves and may be ready to throw in the towel in a competition where they are winless and have been outscored 8-1 including a 1-0 loss to DC in San Juan two weeks ago.

For sure, DC has had some bad news and bad results lately, but so have the Devils Birds. They were pounded in Mexico 3-0 by Toluca a week ago, then traveled back home to get knocked out of their League Cup by Joe Public 2-0 on Friday, and have to turn right around to travel to DC for this matchup. But, they also have worry about their future as they have to turn right around and get ready to defend their league title in Big Six Tournament back home which decides the Trinidad champion. Very possibly the CCL, where they have almost no chance to advance will be the least thing on their minds.

Which does not mean DC should take this match for granted, a lesson they hopefully learned when the Earthquakes trotted into RFK with nothing but pride to play for and spanked DC in a match United desperately need to win in order to keep their MLS playoff hopes under their own control.

Jabloteh will have some pride on the line as well and I can’t imagine they will not play much better than they did the first time these two teams met. Jabloteh strangely showed none of their usual attacking flair, and if anything played a bit meekly, maybe giving DC too much credit in that earlier match. They played virtually a 5-3-2 and barely tried to expose DC with their enormous speed advantage.

There’s no chance the San Juan Kings play that conservative this time around given the situation. They truly have nothing to play for, but they also have nothing to lose either. It could be a track meet in RFK tomorrow and DC would not be the favorites in that scenario I assure you. Especially if United comes out as flat and disinterested as they did against San Jose.

Plus, DC has had some seriously bad news since their stunning win against Marathon last week to put themselves in this catbird position in the CCL. Obviously, the bad performance over the weekend, but also the loss of Namoff possibly for the rest of the year as well his concussion seems a bit worse than was hoped. Then starting goalkeeper Josh Wicks who separated a shoulder and wrenched a knee in that Earthquake debacle and is gone for months as well. So, those two join Moreno, Jakovic, and John who are all suspended for various stupid cards they collected.

So, this match will almost certainly be a very difficult one for DC unless they decide to turn it on and play the way they are capable. Soehn too, has to show that he has learned to be forward thinking in his lineup selections, and not just knee jerk playing players in various positions just because it worked once before. DC pulled out a result against Jabloteh in San Juan with a pretty sketchy group, but there’s no chance those same players can do it again for example.

Assuming Jabloteh does roll out a much more dynamic lineup, dropping some defenders to sprinkle in some exciting attackers like Josh Johnson, who stunned Toluca with the nearest thing Jabloteh got to a goal in Mexico, or their 17 year old phenom Jerrel Britto, to help loosen up the pressure on their already dynamic attackers, Marcano and Peltier, then DC had better be prepared for it. The guys they trotted out last time will not cut it as they barely won then.

Oddly enough, with that in mind, I think Simms will play in central defense. He and James are as smart and as athletic as it gets without Jakovic, so there you go. Now, if Soehn had some guts, he’d take a chance on Vaughn in central defense with James and play McTavish on the right to bookend Burch on the left. Vaughn can certainly play the center as he did for Chivas, but if he hasn’t played there yet for DC, and Simms has been relatively successful lately, I can see sticking with Clyde the Glide back there. Although it would be pretty tempting to have him play midfield where he is actually good, as opposed to defense where he is just competent at best.

In midfield, DC should expect to have to honor Jabloteh’s outside threats more than they had to first time around. Guerra and Jamerson were sucked inside and negated a lot because of their stupid five defender formation. I doubt they make that mistake again and in a 4-4-2, those guys can easily be trouble, especially taking pressure off their playmaker Oliver and spreading the field so DC’s defense can’t collapse on Marcano and Peltier which helped contain them quite nicely the first time these two teams met.

With that in mind, Quaranta (or McTavish) on the right and Wallace on the left would be perfect choices to negate those outside threats as well as get forward credibly. However, maybe both will play anyway as it just seems likely Soehn goes with Wallace in the middle again. A rigid Soehn philosophy seems to be that if something worked once, it should work again. Wallace playing the middle did work in Trinidad and in has worked decently since, but playing decent shouldn’t be what DC is hoping for this time around.

Now, considering how athletic and enterprising Jabloteh can be, it would be great if Soehn could go with Simms and Gomez in the center, but with Simms likely in the defense and Gomez obviously in the doghouse, it seems Wallace and Jacobson or Olsen will get the call in the middle. That is not good news in the slightest. Wallace has not shown the ability to really mark a guy out of the game as he must do on Oliver, and Jacobson showed in Trinidad he has huge defensive flaws and that was against defenders coming at him, not attackers. Now Olsen, god bless him, is past his ability to play against this type of athletic competition 72 hours after playing a tough match. Still, maybe DC gets lucky and Jabloteh will play badly in central midfield, or maybe Soehn will suddenly have an epiphany on the “right blend of players”. We’ll see.

Then at forward, Soehn simply has to go with Pontius and Emilio if there is any god at all. There’s no Moreno to gum up the decision making process, and surely Soehn can’t possibly think Gomez at forward will work as it failed in Trinidad even though Gomez scored and ruled the field in the last 10 minutes when Jabloteh got desperate. No, the only player who has shown any kind of partnership with Emilio has been Pontius so they must play together if DC is to have any productivity out of their snakebit designated player. Those two paired up should be able to crack Jabloteh’s rather pedestrian defense if anyone can.

So, if DC negates the athletic advantage, doesn’t turn the ball over in bad spots in midfield as has been their wont, and avoids too many free kicks to that monstrously tall stick insect, Lawrence, DC should be in good shape to hold the zero. If they come out motivated and threatening and manage to jump on Jabloteh early with some players who have shown some true understanding amongst each other, that should send Jabloteh’s heads down and ice the game.

However, if DC comes out flat and/or Soehn continues to put players in bad spots with his sketchy lineups, then DC could be in for trouble. Obviously, an early mistake like DC has been prone to make, even in Trinidad when they gave Jabloteh three glorious chances to tie the game in the first half minutes after being gifted the early PK, would be catastrophic. But beyond that, even letting this match go to halftime tied will be letting Jabloteh hang around way too long gaining confidence as each minute ticks by.

That’s really the 800 pound gorilla. If DC actually plays hard and tries to win, they will. If they fumble and flail, they will lose and their best chance at any kind of success this season will go down the crapper along with their dwindling playoff hopes.

With a win and a Marathon loss and DC advances out of group play into the quarterfinals next Spring. If DC ties, they would need to hope Marathon gets no better than a tie in their last two matches hosting Toluca and away to Jabloteh. DC could even advance with a 1-0 loss, but DC would need a result in Mexico, or more likely need Marathon to lose both its matches, since DC would still hold the tiebreaker on Jabloteh unless they beat Marathon by six goals. A multigoal loss by DC and they would be eliminated.

As Fred Sanford would say, This is the big one. DC has to pull this one off or they are done for the year. A win and they give themselves an excellent shot at something big to play for next year, but more importantly give themselves some momentum for a decent shot at the MLS glory this year. If they tank this one, no chance they regroup by Saturday for Chivas, and that’s that for the season. Chang will and should lower the boom on this whole dysfunctional mess.

But, how incredible is it that one match could turn an entire dismal season on its ear. It’s not outside of the realm of possibility that DC wins tomorrow and rides a wave to surprise Chivas and KC, and maybe even Columbus. A team that survived this horrific season with such success at the end would be a tough out for even a bogey-team like the Fire in the MLS playoffs.

Hey, it could happen. Despite all evidence to date to the contrary, it could happen. Obviously, wishful thinking, but seriously, this team pulls off the miraculous and does it fairly regularly after digging themselves into titanic holes. As tempting as it is to bury them, just watch them tunnel to the other side and make us all eat our words.

DC United Mauls Marathon and Controls Own Destiny

DC United’s much maligned designated player Luciano Emilio came through with two huge goals in the second half sandwiched around a Jaime Moreno strike to give DC a vital 3-0 win. United is now likely to advance to the knockout phase with a win over last place Jabloteh in RFK next week.

Lucky Luciano scored the game winner barely two minutes after halftime as snuck away from Marathon central defender Mario Beata to latch onto the end of a brilliant cross from Avery John. DC’s three quarter million man nodded that lovely cross back across goal to nestle into side netting for the 1-0 lead. The score easily made up for numerous missed opportunities the snakebit Emilio just could not convert in a first half dominated by DC.

However needing two goals to erase the goal deficit to Marathon from their earlier loss in Honduras in matchday one, DC continued to press forward and was rewarded in the 55th minute by a typically sublime strike from United legend Jaime Moreno. Emilio collected a lovely pass down the right side and centered behind Quaranta in the box, but he was able to recover and poke the ball back to Moreno at the spot. Cool as cucumber, Moreno collected and switched feet to freeze the keeper and poke into the open net like he was slipping a shank into Marathon’s tournament hopes.

Emilio completed the scoring in the 71st latching onto a lovely thru ball by Ben Olsen as he split Marathon’s central defense perfectly, beating their offside trap easily as a hot knife and slotting expertly past the helpless Marathon keeper. With the third goal, DC now had some breathing room and would not have to worry about a goal from Marathon should one arise, since the head to head goal differential was erased.

In the first half, while the game was still in doubt, Marathon’s best chance of the match was a soft clearance by Simms that fell right to Carlos Wil Mejia for a wicked blast 14 minutes into the game, but Wicks dove to push it aside spectacularly.

But United had clearly the better of the play throughout the game though and was frankly unlucky not to gone out to an insurmountable lead in the first half if not for some unfortunate shots. Pontius snapped down a lovely cross right into Emilio’s path as he had ghosted in behind Lucas, but his shot was fumbled wide. Emilio was to barely miss another chance as an Olsen corner kick found him at the near post but his volley sailed just over the bar.

Marathon was simply not able to mount any serious challenges as their rough patch was to continue unmercifully. Not only had they lost in Mexico last week 7-0, and at home 2-0 over the weekend, but due to the political turmoil in their country, they had to endure a brutal travel schedule of long bus rides and planes transfers to even get here, arriving in DC a bare 18 hours before kickoff. Little wonder they played a bit lethargic and far below their usual dynamic abilities.

DC, of course has little sympathy for such problems as they have had three years of tough schedules and wicked travel regionally, so as Soehn mentioned pointedly after the game, “welcome to the club” in dealing with such brutal circumstances if you expect to play at the highest levels in CONCACAF. For once, circumstances played out in DC’s way and they took full advantage.

Still, DC took a bit of a blow right at the end as they endured some wicked fouls by Marathon defenders and got caught in retaliation. After the Mario brothers Beata and Berrios both cruelly hacked United players within two minutes, Moreno had had enough. As he collected a ball in the offensive third, Berrios fouled him repeatedly from behind and United’s captain lined him up for a hip check and swung a bit of an elbow back at the diminutive Honduran. The referee was right on top of it and issued a yellow, but apparently the fourth official saw Moreno and Marathon attacker Mitchell Brown arguing a bit too vociferously, so both were shown a yellow which meant Moreno was ejected as it was his second.

In an amusing aside, Moreno was heckled unmercifully by the Marathon bench and some Honduran fans as he made his way into the tunnel, but he defiantly gestured three fingers repeatedly as he exited to point out the most important result of the evening.

Moreno will now be out for the Jabloteh match as well as both Avery John and Dejan Jakovic who each picked up second yellows for the tournament and will be suspended as well. United will be able to welcome back Christian Gomez from suspension and with the increasing health of the roster, none of the players suspended should cause DC any real distress at home against the worst team in the group (soccer gods willing of course).

DC United still has a huge advantage for advancement as their 3-0 win gives them the tiebreaker over Marathon should the two teams finish tied on points at the end of the group stage. Considering the Mexican giants, Toluca lead the group with 12 points and almost certainly will advance, but DC has now pulled level with Marathon at 6 points apiece with DC holding the tiebreaker edge with this win.

United finishes up the group stage hosting last place Jabloteh of Trinidad and traveling to Mexico to face group leaders Toluca, while Marathon has the far tougher schedule of hosting Toluca and then finishing up in Trinidad against Jabloteh. A win for DC in either match (with the Jabloteh match at home being the most likely, obviously) combined with a loss for Marathon in either match sends DC into the knockout phase of the tournament scheduled for next spring.

In even better news, United now has some serious momentum to carry into it’s final matches of the MLS season at home in the hopes of qualifying for a layoff spot, as well as the welcome back for a lot of injured players to see them through. Santino Quranta played the full 90 and Central defender Dejan Jakovic played the final 15 minutes of this match after having hernia surgery three weeks ago. Marc Burch and Fred are reportedly very close to return as well.

DC returns to MLS action Sunday hosting the worst team in the Western conference San Jose at 3 PM in RFK and likely will have their CONCACAF fate settled as they host San Juan Jabloteh in RFK next Wednesday.

Depleted DC United Hosts Humbled Hondurans

Los Emeraldas were the talk of the region last year and this year right up until a thumping losses in Mexico and another at home have put a hitch in their giddyup recently. Still, DC has their own problems to worry about as their weakened defense absorbs yet another loss, and their best player is suspended as well.

DC United is essentially without their entire starting defense now that right back Bryan Namoff has been ruled out due to a concussion suffered from a cheap shot by Jack Jewsbury of KC a few weeks ago. He had started the vast majority of games this season, but now he joins Canadian center back Dejan Jakovic and left back Marc Burch on the injured list as those two recover from surgery.

Normally that would be appalling news right before hosting a Marathon side that steamrolled the entire group last year with the most dynamic attack seen anywhere outside of Mexico. But, despite some convincing early score-lines in this year’s group stage, Marathon’s spell may have been broken as Toluca massacred them 7-0 last week, and they were dropped in their home league 2-0 over the weekend as well.

Adding to Marathon’s problems is the suspension of their best forward Jerry Palacios who was tossed for two yellows in that 7-0 loss in Mexico. He was the only player for the Green Monster to actually score against DC through his own skill in Marathon’s 3-1 win in the first match between these two clubs down in Honduras. The other two other goals were outright gifts by United’s fumbling defense, so his loss should hamper their attack quite nicely.

Unfortunately, DC’s attack will be a bit hampered too as their best player, especially in international matches, Christian Gomez is also suspended for this one due to his unbelievable card for time wasting in the 17th minute in the win in Trinidad giving him two for the tournament. However, DC has had over 10 days off to figure out what to do about his loss, and to get some solid practice time to alleviate the offensive malaise that has blanketed the team recently. DC has looked like a team that met in the parking lot just before kickoff instead of a team approaching its 39th game of the season. That has to change or this team is doomed.

While they were at it, hopefully Soehn sharpened up the focus of a mistake prone defense too. Surely this break was a godsend that will help the team play a lot more coordinated and cover for each other better. Maybe even Soehn got a chance to coach up a few guys so that everybody will be playing their natural position too. No more Simms at centerback or Szetela playing wide for example. But, beyond that everybody simply has to concentrate better for the full ninety. The scandalous snafus that have put the team behind the eight ball right off the bat have to stop or its an even more painful version of doom than simply the lack of offensive imagination outlined above.

However in a way, the loss of so many starters might be a very good thing as none of them have been playing that well anyway, and the youngsters and newbies looked pretty decent in Trinidad. The defense made a few errors for sure, but were not punished as they recovered well and covered for each other adequately. The midfield was a bit pedestrian, and the attack even less threatening, but overall they got the job done. They get downright frisky in the end as they began to get room when Jabloteh finally came out of its shell.

DC will need every bit of that improvement too as even a shellacked and staggering Marathon are still more dangerous than DC has been unless they are absolutely at the top of their game. Marathon won’t have Palacios, but they will have two guys DC hoped to sign this year in Carlos Wil Mejia back from suspension and Walter Martinez, as well as Scott and Mitchell Brown, all of whom have the tools to run circles around DC unless they’ve got their house in order.

Same with Marathon’s defense too. Toluca made them look stupid, but the Red Devils are dominating the Mexican league right now and make a lot of teams look stupid. That could have been just a bad night for Los Emeraldas. Granted, Norales has looked terrible this year, but the Mario brothers, Berrios and Beata as well as Sabillon certainly had no problem containing DC or Jabloteh in the earlier rounds and they were rested over the weekend if my spies in Honduras are feeding me the facts properly.

So considering everything including United’s two matches coming up in the next five days, I’m thinking Soehn goes for broke in this one, because it will set the tone for the upcoming matches as well. DC will get back Gomez and at least two of his defenders for the Sunday SJ match and then hangs on with whatever’s left in the tank against Jabloteh next Tuesday.

That means Emilio and Pontius at forward, but with Emilio on a short leash as Shipalane showed more effort and determination in three minutes in Trinidad than United’s designated player did all match, and pressuring Norales has to be the game plan as he’s about as weak a link as they have in that very good backline. Emilio has really suffered the most as United’s offense has gone south because he requires so much help from others in order for his finishing skills to shine. Pontius has clearly been the best partner for him all year, and with nearly everyone else healthy DC’s rookie of the year hopeful should be able to play forward for this one.

Now, how Soehn handles the midfield will be a crapshoot I’m sure. Logic would dictate replacing Gomez with the newly healthy Quaranta (splitting 45s with the newly healthy Fred in the second half no doubt) and playing Simms behind him, then Wallace and McTavish on the outsides. Wallace needs to play on the left to slow down Rodriguez and especially their wicked right back Sabillon who dominated that side of the field in the first meeting with DC. McTavish should play the right because he is a solid two way player who will stay wide and do his job adequately on both sides of the ball. He even had a diving header saved that would have changed the match down there had not Marathon’s Obelar made a spectacular save.

However, Tommy rarely uses logic and he gets stuck in a rut maybe a little too much when something works, no matter how miraculously it worked. Case in point, Szetela played a fine match on the right in the Jabloteh win, and classic Soehn dictates Szetela play there again despite the fact Szetela is not really a wing player. Still, maybe Tommy is satisfied that he forced his recalcitrant young prodigy into “embracing the position” as it were, and moves him back inside now that he’s proved who’s the boss, but you never know.

Same with playing Wallace in the middle and Simms on the backline. It has worked to some extent, more so with Wallace than Simms, but Marathon is not KC or Dallas or even a lethargic Jabloteh. The Green Monster will rampage in RFK if given openings because of simple mistakes by players playing out of position. Plus, creating positive matchups all over the field has to be of more importance than merely filling in positions with the best available player. So, we’ll see if the stubborn Soehn has learned this lesson or not.

Now, replacing the entire defense is actually pretty easy since most of them have been out anyway and Namoff has been playing terrible, so it could even be considered a boon. Normally, McTavish would be the first choice to replace Namoff, but he’s needed in midfield (unless of course Soehn starts Moreno and moves Pontius back, but that is not advised as Moreno has been playing terrible and simply has not found any decent rhythm with Emilio). However, David Habarugira has looked pretty promising and is back from suspension, so he deserves another look playing at home in a tournament he’s already gotten his feet wet in.

As for the rest of the backline, it’s time to see if Vaughn is any good. He’s played center back oodles of times for Chivas and if he can’t help out now, then what was the point of signing him? Anyway, he should line up next to Calamity James who is having a rough time of late, but is persevering nicely. For all his warts, James does bring some bite and a great deal of tenacity to what has been a dewy soft defense for DC. Also, most importantly they are the two most athletic defenders DC has and Marathon’s forwards are nothing if not dynamic. Since outplaying them might be a stretch, you at least have to be able to catch them from time to time.

Bottom line is that United has been playing musical chairs in the defense while the new guys they brought in got up to speed. Well, they’ve had ten days to get up to speed, and while there might not be a Usain Bolt in the bunch, they at least deserve to be in the race in their natural positions to see if they have what it takes. They were signed for desperate times, and your entire starting defense being out is pretty much the times that try men’s souls. Definitely going to be some fingers crossed tomorrow night, but it’s probably DC’s best chance to pull off a shutout.

DC better hope the team is clicking on all cylinders though, because they need a multigoal win or their hope of advancing is dead. One goal won’t do it as apparently CONCACAF tiebreaking rules put more weight on head to head than group goal differential, so DC needs to win by two at least to negate Marathon’s goal advantage head to head. Of course CONCACAF has to be different and value head to head matchups instead of total group results, despite the fact it is a “group” stage, but there you go. That’s an argument for another day.

But, it is helpful that Marathon seems to be going through a rough patch right at the moment. Not just the losses, either. The political unrest in Honduras has to be a concern in and of itself for players and their families, but now the airports have been closed and the team had to bus to Guatemala in order to even fly here for the match. They probably won’t even have time for a true practice here before the match, adding yet another layer to their troubles.

So, that’s it. Given the way the group has played out, this match is for most of the marbles, and DC has most of the advantages despite a depleted roster given Marathon’s even greater problems. Now, it’s up to United to wriggle their way up the lifeline they’ve been thrown, because if they don’t, they’ll slip right back into the ooze of teams that can’t cut it at the international level anymore. Which would be a huge blow for an organization that used to pride itself on being a regional power.

It’s right there for them, though, if they can translate all their good fortune lately, as well as much needed rest and some timely returning players into a big win. If they do that and give themselves some real hope to advance, then DC will be able to hold its head up in the region again. Plus, a big win will almost certainly translate into some real momentum heading into a crucial set of MLS matches.

But even at the very least, DC needs to get a win of any kind to restore at least some of their self-respect that’s been lost over this cruelly twisted roller coaster season. However, if they can’t pull something out of the hat tomorrow night, then chalk this up as another trophy we did not win, and more likely than not MLS success down the stretch will prove to just as elusive.

Despite Best Efforts to Fail, DC United Might Actually Succeed

Imagine my chagrin when I was viciously hammering away at an article deploring United’s pitiful performances this season from ownership right on down the line to the last player on the bench, but after recent results, I have no choice but to reconsider my draconian position for a more cautiously warm and fuzzy interpretation of this season’s events.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am still desperately disappointed in the entire organization for numerous poor decisions and results this year. From the PG Stadium fiasco to front office foolishness like the ill-advised “We Win Trophies” campaign, as well as the de-valuing of hard core season ticket holders with the Real Madrid twofer ticket offer, to an almost complete meltdown in terms of roster management and player motivation, and I could write a book taking Temperamental Tommy to task, etc. etc.

But, starting with that solid performance in Trinidad and then Toluca’s demolition of Marathon, right up through the weekend’s MLS results that could hardly have fallen more perfectly for United, it’s a little tough to rail away angrily at a team that is still in position to advance in MLS and internationally, with their destiny in their hands at home, despite all the glaring mistakes and mismanagement to date.

So, I will grudgingly lay my poison pen aside for a week or two, and point out that United will have the inside track towards advancing out of the CONCACAF group stage if their well rested side simply beats an obviously laboring Marathon side in RFK Thursday night. Even better, they still cling to a playoff berth with some winnable games coming up at home since the rest of the league is proving to be nearly as dysfunctional as DC.

That’s really been the saving grace for United this year. Other teams pretty much suck as much as DC does and seemingly go out of their way to help DC gloss over its glaring mistakes. Chicago, KC, and Dallas simply gave DC seven points out of hand recently, and that Jabloteh team showed none of the power and athleticism, much less any urgency, to win a crucial match for both teams. Then United should send Toluca flowers for them erasing all of Marthon’s goal difference advantage in one fell swoop.

But, getting back to more important matters, namely MLS and looking critically at the league, Houston and Columbus are clearly the best of this year’s poor crop, but even they have some pretty serious warts. Houston’s vaunted defense is shipping goals like a leaky paddleboat lately and they have schedule congestion problems too. The Crew are pretty solid, but are not particularly deep so I wonder what a key injury would do to them?

Still, United easily slides into the upper reaches of the cesspool of teams festering just below those two clear favorites. Seriously, who’s better than DC? An LA team that can barely win at home, and was thumped for 6 the other night, or Colorado and RSL that can’t win on the road? Or a Chivas team staggering down the stretch like three legged mule? Seattle? Sure, they beat us twice, but they can’t score at home much less win.

Even the beast of the East, NE is not particularly frightening and couldn’t even scrape together a win in NY. Games in hand are nice, but you have to win them and NE has two of next three on road and hosts Seattle, Chicago and the Crew. Good luck with that. Chicago has been teetering of late too, playing horrible at home. Then TFC is depleting the rest of the world of Canadians, but has failed to turn any of that into serious points with one win in their last five matches, and KC is all but eliminated already.

Bottom line, DC is still sitting in the catbird seat and if they beat a snakebitten SJ and conflicted Chivas, maybe even a schedule congested Crew who will have already qualified for the playoffs by then, all played in the friendly confines of RFK, then they are in the playoffs no question. DC might even skate out of KC with all the points too since the Wizards will have been eliminated by then and DC has been pretty lucky in Kansas lately too.

Almost as incredible, DC has as good a shot as they ever will to beat Marathon in RFK this week as they have had ten days to regroup from a brutal stretch, while the Hondurans have had a butt kicking in Mexico as well as travel and their own league play to worry about. Then DC will virtually qualify themselves for the knockout stage, since Jabloteh visits next and United has never lost to a Caribbean side home or away in their history. They win those two and keep it respectable in Mexico and it’s almost a lock they qualify. Nine points and the goal differential edge over a Marathon team that will be finishing up in Trinidad would be enough to see the Black and Red through.

Now, given the way DC has played this season, it’s hard to believe they would even be in this position at this point of the season, but it must be pointed out that this team actually plays its best when their backs are against the wall. The comeback points earned in league play all year long, the international wins in El Salvador and Trinidad, even in the sad sack loss in the Open Cup, United nearly pulled off a stunning rally after going down by two, but fell just short.

Well, if they realize their backs are against the wall right this very moment, they should be in good shape gearing up for must win CONCACAF and MLS matches. They have had a week to catch their breath after an awful stretch and they are getting healthier and apparently more disciplined if the Trinidad match is any indication.

So, despite all their efforts to submarine themselves this season, they could well pull off the impossible with a few determined efforts after all had appeared to be lost. If they get into the playoffs, anything can happen in MLS that’s for sure, but simply getting in would be huge considering the way the team has played this season. If they actually get into the knockout phase of CONCACAF and regain a lot of the international respect lost the past calendar year, than that would simply be miraculous given they way they started the tournament.

It’s tough to be too hard on a team that is in a position to manage all that, so some painfully bad decisions can be swept under the rug I suppose. The stadium problems might really have been PG County’s fault, the roster mismanagement might really have been forced upon them due to circumstances, and the team appears to be making up for a lot of that with free tickets to the remaining CONCACAF matches. Then, the Real Madrid tix and the “WWT” campaign blunders could be one off well meant grasps as opposed to insults to their hard core fans. Plus, let’s face it. The Real Madrid match didn’t really hurt the club as they played well against the Spanish Kings, and even though they bumped a hugely important league match to a rainy weeknight in front of basically family and friends, they won that match anyway.

Besides, there’s always time to bring out the poison pen later if they tank the next few matches. Oh yes, if they come out flat and disinterested and heap more painful performances onto the RFK faithful, then I will surely take a much dimmer view of a United team that might be seriously losing its way.

Gomez penalty conversion enough as United gains first ever Champions League win 1-0 in Trinidad

It only took nine CONCACAF Champions League group stage and two preliminary qualifying matches for D.C. United to notch their very first win in the international competition. Christian Gomez’ 14th minute penalty was all the Black and Red needed to get a bit more confidence going ahead of their next group match a week from Thursday at RFK Stadium against Marathon of Honduras.
After three matches played, United is firmly in third place with 3 points. A win over Marathon will make the remaining two group matches very interesting. United left about a half dozen starters back in Washington D.C., a combination of badly needed rest, injuries and suspensions. With that United only took 16 players down to Port of Spain and fielded yet another makeshift lineup that saw Clyde Simms in the back line of United’s 4-5-1 formation. Luciano Emilio was the target player with Gomez roaming freely all night just behind him.

Danny Szetela, Andrew Jacobson and Devon MacTavish all drew rare starts and their fresh legs were a big part of the improved performance from past weeks from the Black and Red. Aside from a ten minute spot of play from the home side late in the first half, United were in complete control of the match as Jebloteh were reduced to taking chances from the inordinate amount of free kicks given by the sketchy at best refereeing crew. A number of bizarre calls seemed to go against United all night long including the yet unseen this calender year call of six seconds of possession against United’s goalkeeper Milos Kocic. The resulting free kick was the worst of a terrible litter of poor free kicks from Jebloteh.

United got the games lone goal in the 14th minute when a Jebloteh defender clearly blocked a cross coming from Szetela through the penalty area. Gomez stepped up and easily beat the Trinidadian goalkeeper. While United didn’t create all that many chances outside of a few late ones as Jebloteh was pushing upfield looking for the equalizer, they did a more than credible job of keeping possession and forcing the home side to attempt to apply pressure to get the ball away from United. United obliged on a few occasions with their own bizarre turnovers but for the most part the midfield triangle of Rodney Wallace, Jacobsen and Gomez kept United in control from start to finish.

United has now ended their worst stretch of matches for the season after playing 10 games in 31 days and 4 different countries. Now they can get back to DC and get some proper training in (which they couldn’t do when they were playing every 3 days) and prepare for the stretch run of this competition as well as the highly important MLS playoff chase. United will face Marathon of Honduras on Thursday, Sept 24th at RFK. Three days later they get back into MLS play against the San Jose Earthquakes at RFK and then face Jebloteh again on Wednesday, September 30th.

United Notes

– Bryan Namoff, Jaime Moreno, Josh Wicks, Ben Olsen, Santino Quaranta, Marc Burch, Dejan Jakovic and Fred were all left back in Washington.

– Ty Shipalane made his United debut subbing in for Emilio in the 78th minute and should have scored in the 90th when he was all alone in front of net, courtesy of a fine individual move from Gomez

– Milos Kocic got a rare start and has yet to taste defeat this season wearing the Black and Red goalkeeper jersey. Interesting…………

For DC United the Future is Now

DC United takes on San Juan Jabloteh FC in Trinidad for their third match of the CONCACAF Champions League with both teams winless so far. But, to the winner goes at least a modicum of regional respect and a slim chance at still advancing, while the loser gains sole possession of last place and will be all but mathematically eliminated.

United finally drags itself to the last match of their wicked streak of 10 matches in 31 days and it’s been a pretty miserable ride for DC United. The Black and Red have gone 2-5-2 over the past month including losing the Open Cup trophy at home, both of their CONCACAF matches badly, as well as seen their home unbeaten streak ended this past weekend by Seattle to boot. Even their two wins were pretty much fluke results in Chicago and against a KC team that manhandled the team in everything except putting the ball in the net.

So, considering that and the fact that a pretty big chunk of starters is not even going on this road trip to South America (OK, Trinidad is Caribbean, but it’s closer to Venezuela than I am to my refrigerator), hoping for a win does seem to strain credulity a bit. Especially when you consider Toluca barely escaped Trinidad with a 1-0 win, while said Toluca cruised easily past United in RFK 3-1 (which also leaves United in last place in the group on goal differential).

However, the future is now for DC United, maybe in a very similar way to DC’s improbable point in Saprissa as well as a respectable effort in Cruz Azul in last year’s CCL, with a mostly reserve lineup. Soehn now gets a chance to do pretty much the same thing he did last year, audition players for next season. Granted most of those guys who pulled off those decent performances were axed, or in the case of Crayton and Janicki, humiliated and banished during this season. But hey, maybe it turns out better this time.

For once establishing Soehn’s lineup should be pretty easy as he only took 16 players, 8 of whom are midfielders, on this quest for regional respect. Considering the other 8 are two goalkeepers, two forwards and four defenders, it’s pretty obvious only a few midfield slots are up for grabs. Unless maybe Soehn will throw everyone for a loop and go back to a 3-5-2, but that does not seem likely.

So if four in the back it is, then it’s just a matter of where they line up. In the defense, I suspect McTavish will play the right, newcomer Lawson Vaughn in the center with Julius James, and Avery John on the left ( Habarugira is suspended for yellows in consecutive matches). Now, Vaughn played a lot of right back for Chivas and McT has played centrally lately, but I think Soehn uses this opportunity to test out whether Vaughn can be a legitimate option in DC’s very thin central defensive corps, and also give McTavish some time on the right in order to give himself another option if Namoff’s seriously poor play continues much longer.

No question Kocic will be in goal to see how he handles the atmosphere outside MLS as he auditions to maybe replace Wicks next year as it would be criminal to throw Hamid out in this type of situation. Then, of course Emilio and Pontius will be the forwards as there were no others on the flight to Trinidad. In a pinch Gomez and especially another newcomer Ty Shipalane can certainly play forward, but I suspect that will only be for emergencies.

So, the real questions swirl around the midfield. It seems a lock Shipalane plays the right because Soehn simply has to find out if this cat can be a true wing player at this level. It would be a waste to play him anywhere else. Rodney Wallace almost certainly plays the left too as he’s only real option there.

But who plays the center will be interesting. Soehn always tries to play a solid veteran somewhere in midfield, and I’m betting it will be Simms with the short straw. I also think Gomez starts on the bench and really only plays if the game is in the balance in the second half. That way Soehn can see more of Szetela or Jacobson to see if either can become that all important holding midfielder to replace Olsen next year, or even work themselves out of the doghouse this year.

It will be interesting to see how United’s youngsters and newbies play against Jabloteh too. The “San Juan Kings” have been four time T&T champions and currently sit in second behind Joe Public in the league, but qualified as the third team from the Caribbean Football Union losing out to eventual CFU champions W-Connection and Puerto Rico Islanders, but defeating Tempete FC in the third place match. Then going on to defeat San Francisco of Panama 3-2 (winning at home3-0) to qualify for group B.

However, for such a lightly considered qualifying team, Jabloteh has shocked the region with its results so far even though they have not won in the group stage yet. They were clearly the underdogs in advancing past San Francisco, especially after dropping the opener 2-0. Then they stunned Toluca, who got an early goal, but had to hang on like grim death as Jabloteh outplayed the Mexicans for much of rest of the match. If not for the heroics of Cristante in goal for Toluca, it could have been the most shocking result of the first round, and that includes Pachuca losing in Panama 4-1.

Jabloteh even had an eerily similar result in Honduras falling to Marathon 3-1 after DC lost by the same score there in round one. But after giving up their soft early goal to the Hondurans, Jabloteh tied it up before halftime. They also carried their 1-1 tie a bit closer to the end as they saved the late penalty kick they gave up (no re-takes for them to deal with apparently), before giving up 2 in the last 5 minutes in a game that was much closer than the score implies.

Jabloteh plays a 4-4-2 and has a former MLS midfielder Travis Mulraine (SJ 2000, before they got good with Donovan and DeRo and collected a few MLS Cups) in central midfield. The team revolves around playmaker Marvin Oliver though, who earned the PK against Marathon as his pass was handled in the box by Norales. Left back Noel Williams converted to PK interestingly. Of course it wouldn’t be a Caribbean team if they didn’t have big, speedy forwards, and Lester Peltier and Jason Marcano were a handful for Toluca and Marthon.

Bottom line is that this game is a crap shoot. If DC plays like they’ve been playing, they’re sunk for certain. But, if some youngsters show up big in addition to the continued excellent play from Wallace and Pontius, DC might well get a glimpse into it’s future as a lot of these young guys could be the new core of the team after United swaps out a few aging or unproductive elements in the off-season.

As for a little history (and you know I love this stuff!), Jabloteh was founded in 1974 as a youth club, but converted to a semi-professional soccer club as soon as a league was formed in 1994, then became one of the founding members of T&T’s professional league when it was created in 1999. They are considered the most successful club in the league, with four championships including the last two running, but that’s debatable as W-Connection has 3 titles, but has won the CFU trophy three times as well to Jabloteh’s lone trophy outside of Trinidad.

Incredibly, DC United will not be the first MLS club they have faced either. After winning the league and the CFU championship in 2003, they met the Chicago Fire in the quarterfinals of the 2004 CONCACAF Champions Cup. Ominously, they beat the Fire handily in Trinidad, 5-2 behind a hat-trick from Cornel Glen (coincidentally, he is currently with SJ in MLS), but the Fire advanced with a 4-0 win at home.

Their team name, Jabloteh comes from a sketchy French name for the national bird of Trinidad, the Oilbird, which is the only nocturnal fruit eating species of bird in the world. So naturally, early French colonists called them the Devil Birds, presumably because they left their fruit out at night and awoke considerably vexed. Anyway, in French, Devil Bird is “Les Diables Oiseaux”. Now, not speaking French, the locals gradually garbled that phrase into Jabloteh, or so it is rumored, anyway.

United will take on Jabloteh in Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain Trinidad, one of the most storied stadiums in the Caribbean, especially for the US. It’s where the US National team just played less than a week ago and beat the Soca Warriors for three crucial points in World Cup qualifying, and where Paul Caligiuri hit the shot heard round the world that qualified the US for the World Cup in 1990 for the first time in 40 years. Hopefully some of that luck rubs off on DC tomorrow.

The stadium is named for Hasely Joachim Crawford the six time Trinidad sprint champion who won the island’s first ever gold medal in the 1976 Olympics by beating the heavy favorite Jamaican Don Quarrie in the 100 meter final. Originally, the National Stadium, it was renamed for Crawford in 2001.

Toluca Trounces DC United

DC United’s reserves were no match for Mexican powerhouse Toluca, yet once again nearly pulled off an improbable tie. But sadly, another pitiful performance over the last 10 minutes sealed their fate in a match that played out eerily similar to their loss in Honduras to Marathon. The loss leaves United winless and in last place in group B, six points behind Toluca and Marathon, and with almost no chance to advance.

It’s hard enough for DC to play the best teams in the entire region during a particularly tough part of their schedule, but to shoot themselves in the foot in the opening minutes of such matches is suicide. Yet, United did it again gifting Toluca a goal in the fifth minute of the game to send the Mexicans well on their way to being the first team to beat United in RFK this season.

Toluca had sent an innocent ball into the area, a play that is routinely defended without mishap dozens of times a game by competent teams, yet United keeper Josh Wicks turned it into the easiest goal Toluca’s Vladimir “green boots” Marin will ever score in his lifetime. Wicks did charge out like a lion, but eased into the ball like an old man slipping into a bathtub. He also apparently forgot he’s the only player able to use his hands too as he pretty much chested the ball off the dumbfounded David Habarugira right into Marin’s path for the easy finish into the open net.

Once again behind the eight ball, United did manage to hang on gamely until the they struck like lightning for an improbable goal right after halftime on a lovely finish by rookie Chris Pontius totally against the run of play to tie the match. Halftime sub Santino Quaranta collected a poor clear deep down the left side of the box and lofted a perfect cross between Toluca’s two central defenders. With lovely instincts, Pontius dove in front of Mexican National team defender, Edgar Duenas to nod the ball into the back of the net to give United a lifeline.

Incredibly, United held on like grim death just long enough for fans to begin thinking that maybe the soccer gods will smile upon the Black and Red for once. Maybe DC can pull off a point in a match they should lose going away to make up for being robbed of points in matches they clearly should have won. But those hopes were dashed cruelly in the end as DC fumbled away any chance of restoring their international reputation.

In the 79th minute, on a play that will leave United defender Marc Burch twitching in his sleep with nightmares, Toluca’s Hector Mancilla collected a ball in the United area and showed exactly why he’s a Chilean International and lead the entire Mexican league in scoring last year. He turned exquisitely and cut back and forth on Burch so many times he literally opened up yards of space to take his time to drill a shot past the helpless Wicks for the winner.

Unfortunately, just as Soehn looked like a genius for bringing on Quaranta at the half, he looked like the goat as he burned his third sub on Namoff while the game was still tied. Sadly, United’s veteran defender was caught ball watching as Nestor Calderon was sent so far behind United’s defense someone from La Norte had a better chance of catching him than Namoff did. With time enough to measure his cross perfectly, Calderon sent a screamer across the face of goal where DC’s Julius James once again deflected it right into the path an opponent facing an open goal. This time John wasn’t close enough to foul him for the PK like Janicki did in Honduras, so Mancilla touched it in easily to seal United’s fate.

United resumes group play almost three weeks from now in Trinidad against San Juan Jabloteh. Needless to say another 3-1 loss would end any hope of United advancing. As it is United has almost no chance anyway. DC faces Jabloteh twice and would need big wins in both as well as beat Marathon at home. Even then, it would likely take Jabloteh stealing some points away from Toluca or Marathon, since a result in Mexico seems a forgone conclusion.

On the bright side, United has plenty of players rested up for their upcoming loss in Chicago. United returns home next Wednesday for the Open Cup final against Seattle. The “We Win Trophies” campaign could go the way of the infamous “Metro Playoff Fever” slogan if United lays an egg in that one. Still, there’s hope right?

DC United Looking to Restore Mexican Mystique in RFK

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.