Late goals sink United in Champions League group play opener

Two late goals from Jerry Palacios and Mario Berrios set Marathon of Honduras on to a 3-1 victory over D.C. United last night in the opening match of the CONCACAF Champions League in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Defensive blunders were once again the undoing of the Black and Red and they left Honduras with an undeserved loss to open their group play account.

Defender Greg Janicki had a big part in all three goals allowed and it was too much to overcome for the visitors who had played very well for most of the evening. Janicki’s misplay of an otherwise routine clearance in the penalty area gifted Marathon a 1-0 lead in the 24th minute. Janicki whiffed on his left-footed clearance and the ball landed on the foot of former United target Walter Martinez who easily tapped it into goal for the lead.

Both teams got to halftime and United were the aggressors from the restart. In the 48th minute United scored on a corner kick when halftime substitute Santino Quaranta sent in the cross that met the forehead of Julius James. His shot was well saved by the Marathon goalkeeper but the rebound was nodded in by Luciano Emilio to level the score. Emilio had a clash of heads with a Marathon defender on the play and had to leave the match temporarily to attend to a gaping head wound that left him very bloody on the field.

From that point United were the much crisper and aggressive team as their midfield dominated the Honduran side who resorted to long-ball tactics to relieve the pressure. United should have taken the lead in the 64th minute when Quaranta sent in a laser presice diagonal cross to the onrushing Devon McTavish who’s diving header was once again well saved.

United would rue that missed opportunity for in the 83rd minute Jerry Palacios got inside and behind Janicki and slotted the ball past Josh Wicks for the game-winner. A late penalty was dubiously awarded to the home side a few minutes later when Janicki took down Palacios with a hard tackle in the box. Mario Berrios’ first PK attempt was saved by Wicks but the referee awarded a retake when Clyde Simms encroached into the box. Berrios made the subsequent shot and the final was 3-1 to Marathon, a flattering scoreline for sure considering how well United had played on the evening.


United Notes

– Not a banner day for the FSC announcing team of Christian Miles and Christopher Sullivan. Both men made numerous mistakes through the evening, the most aggregious of which was Sullivan’s constant pointing out of United’s “return match at RFK”. It wasn’t until the 92nd minute when Sullivan had realized that this was a group phase and not a two-leg aggregate series. Miles, a person I have slagged on more than one occasion both on the air and in print, was a complete nightmare. In talking about debutant David Habarugira – “it’s his MLS debut tonight”. I love the commitment to soccer that FSC provides, but the sometimes cable access feel of the network is a bit too comical. Last night was no exception

– Danny Szetela and Bryan Namoff remained in DC to train ahead of the Galaxy match on Saturday night. Dejan Jakovic, Christian Gomez and Marc Burch did not make it off the bench. Jakovic was not on the 18-man roster

United Facing Familiar Foe in CONCACAF Champions League

Heading into the most difficult and important stretch of games of the season, United certainly stumbled out of the gate last week with a disturbing loss in Toronto, and things just get tougher from here on out in international play as United faces the Honduran champions, Marathon who swept DC on their way to winning the group last year.

Well, it’s not Real Madrid on the other side of the field, but it might well be a team just as fearsome as Marathon rolled over United last season like jeep over a jellyfish. DC lost down there in Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano 2-0, and dropped the return match in RFK 4-2, neither match was even close.

The scores could have been much worse too. Marathon was easily the fastest and most dynamic team in the group as well as being by far the classiest to boot. Saprissa and Cruz Azul both pulled every cheap trick in the book to get their points, but Los Emeraldas simply outplayed everyone they faced up to and including the Puerto Rico Islanders, who bunkered and busted them out in the quarterfinals despite Marathon being clearly the better team.

Marathon appears to be picking up right were they left off too as they are the early leaders in the Honduran league at 4-1-1, although they did pick up their first loss just this past weekend against Real Espana. But, they’ve only given up five goals in six games, three of them to Real Espana’s Carlos Pavon (formerly of the Galax), and are cruising along averaging almost two goals a game scored.

Lots of familiar faces to DC United are still in their squad too. Although it appears someone has finally stuck a stake in Tyson Nunez as he has finally retired and his partner in crime Saul Martinez is also not on any roster I could find either. Which is good news as those two ripped DC for 3 goals and 3 assists last season. However, there’s still a lot of good attacking talent floating around their roster as DC United can attest having tried to sign attackers like Carlos Wil Mejia and Walter Martinez in the last two years.

Their midfield appears to be pretty much intact as well and in particular the central midfield of Mario Beata and Mariano Acevedo are very adept at launching counter-attacks, and right wing Marvin Chavez is a decidedly tricky player that DC needs to contain. Chavez has been linked to FC Dallas recently, but sadly nothing signed yet, so no doubt he will be out there to punish United if they are not careful.

Defensively, Marathon still have two or three Honduran National team defenders in Erick Norales, Mario Berrios, and Mauricio Sabillon, so no breaks there either. Bottom line, Marathon is good and they have reason to feel pretty confident about DC United coming to visit again, especially as they weathered the group stages at home last year without even giving up a goal, including shutting out Cruz Azul convincingly.

United on the other hand is a lot different team than the injured and anemic wreck the Green Monster faced last year. The roster is a lot more balanced and almost everyone is healthy. Namoff and Pontius are out with slight injuries and Fred is suspended, but the current state of United is a lot deeper than last year and Soehn has plenty of players to overcome those absences.

Unfortunately, what United does not have is very good road form, and the loss in Toronto certainly didn’t do anything to make anyone think United is able to find success outside of RFK. Even worse is that Jakovic and Emilio both played about as bad as they ever have in that futile match. Now Jakovic has been a revelation and rock solid most of the year and he simply cannot play that bad again especially with Namoff out and facing a Marathon side that attacks in waves. Emilio, too must be a legitimate threat to score or United could easily struggle to mount credible attacks against a very good defensive team that makes Toronto look like a seive.

So, considering all the options, I’m thinking Soehn has to go with as many veterans as possible. No way is this a good time to toss some fresh meat to the wolves like the newly signed defenders Habarugira or James or Ely Allen, or even the likes of Szetela, DiRaimondo or Jacobson, none of whom have all that much international experience, and there’s no way Firpo can be compared to the Green Monster of Honduras. You can always sub in some youth once you’ve established yourself, but bringing in experience off the bench having punted the first half is not too promising.

So, veterans like Emilio, Moreno, and Gomez especially are the best bet to establish some type of offensive scheme as they have the longest tenure together and have shown flashes of their 2007 form when they’ve taken the field together which really hasn’t happened often enough in my opinion. Youth and speed is nice, but guile and savvy might be a lot more valuable against a team that is already younger and faster than you are anyway.

Then Olsen must start in central midfield too, for his leadership and organization. No chance he physically runs down anyone on their roster, but not many younger United players are as fast as the Hondurans either. So, keeping organized and playing smart will be crucial. Simms, too is another calming and confident influence with first hand experience in Honduras that could be the difference between a hard fought close match, and a rout that United must avoid at all costs.

Quaranta playing the right side will be a crucial role as well, since Wallace playing the left will be lucky to just contain Chavez, much less get into the attack. So, it’s up to Santino to avenge his silly red card against Marathon last year after barely 45 minutes in the very last match of the group. He needs a good game both sides of the ball for DC to really have a chance.

Defensively, I think Soehn should use McTavish (or even James) to cover for Namoff leaving Jakovic in the center and Janicki on the bench. But seeing as how he’s used Jakovic on the right and started Janicki in the center against the likes of Real Madrid, I think it’s probably a forgone conclusion he goes with that again. But, which Janicki will show up? The one who blanked Real Madrid for much of the match, or the one who fumbled away a goal to Firpo? He won’t have good memories of playing Marathon last year either. But, Burch played pretty well against them, or Soehn can send out John to hack them to pieces. Either way.

Wicks too, must reassert himself. I never really discuss goalkeeping that much as that position is rarely the reason for wins and losses, but Wicks has gotten a bit of the yips lately and is a bit of a concern again. He’s been pretty shaky of late despite some highlight reel saves. Those are nice, but the blunders have cost points and for sure Marathon will punish mistakes.

So there you have it. DC could pull it off if they play their A game. I especially like DC’s five in midfield against Marathon’s four, that should slow them down right nicely and help prevent some man on man disadvantages for DC. But, whatever happens they must somehow manage to tighten up their hideous road defense. In particular, they must avoid their patented 15 minute meltdowns that let in multiple goals in a short span. Because United absolutely must keep this match close. Losing a close one would not be the end of the world, but a multigoal loss could be fatal.

DC-Marathon is likely to be the swing matchup of the group. Jabloteh is easily the worst team in the group and just happy to have made it his far. They will be the whipping boy of the group, so DC and Marathon will be slugging it out for right to advance along with group favorite Toluca.

Plus, the way the games play out, DC could be playing from way down the table as they have two of their toughest games first, hosting Toluca next week after this match in Honduras. While both Toluca and Marathon face Jabloteh in one of their first two matches. So, obviously winning or tying would be best, but avoiding a multigoal loss is imperative.

DC United got this far by being the first MLS team to actually win a qualifying round, and it took a supreme effort down in El Salvador. Now, they need a performance just as good, well certainly a result just as good anyway, if they are to give themselves a chance to advance into the quarter-finals.

For certain, they should expect to improve on last year’s debacle in CCL, but going from last to third in your group hardly makes that effort in El Salvador to even get this far seem worth it. Now, sticking it to a Marathon side that toyed with you last year and becoming only the second MLS team to make the knockout rounds along the way would be the right way to go about expunging some painful memories.

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.

United’s 1-1 draw with L.A. Firpo leaves their Champions League future in doubt

D.C. United continued their uninspired play of late and now leave their CONCACAF Champions League future in doubt with their 1-1 draw last night against L.A. Firpo at muggy RFK Stadium in front of 8,026 fans. Jaime Moreno’s 42nd minute penatly kick conversion tied the match after United defender Greg Janicki gift-wrapped the visitors opening goal by Mario Benitez in the 26th minute.

By virtue of the 1-1 draw and with the away goals rule in place, United now has to either win straight out next Tuesday in El Salvador, or at the very least has to get a 1-1 draw (which would take the teams into two extra-time sessions and possibly penalties afterwards if still tied). A multiple goal draw will see United advance to the group stages of the Champions League. A Firpo win or 0-0 draw will see them through.

Head coach Tom Soehn decided to start only three of his normal starters mostly because of the fixture congestion that has enveloped the squad in recent weeks. After playing on the West coast on Saturday and seeing another away match in Houston (as well as the return leg on Tuesday next) this Saturday, his hand was forced in an attempt to give some key players some rest. Ben Olsen and Fred didn’t even make the 18-man squad last night and his ultimate hope was to leave Luciano Emilio, Christian Gomez and Chris Pontius on the bench for as long as possible. That all ended in the 26th minute.

Greg Janicki pulled off a double mistake in the back that gifted the visitors a precious away goal and the lead in the match. Janicki, under no pressure whatsoever, tried to thread a 20 yard pass upfield to a teamate only to see it land squarely on the foot of a Firpo midfielder. Seconds later the ball got turned right back over to Janicki at the top of the penalty area. With a United teamate directly in front and one to the left of Janicki, the second-year defender inexplicably tried to cut back on Firpo attacker Mario Benitez and easily got stripped of the ball. The Colombian striker then hit a left-footed strike underneath Milos Kocic for the shock 1-0 lead.

United continued their stupifyingly poor play with a series of bad passes, poor touches and overweighted passes that put teamates in constant trouble. However, a gift from referee Paul Delgadillo in the 41st minute gave United a lifeline. Rodney Wallace was tripped up on the box and the United was awarded a penalty. Replays showed minimal contact, if any at all, on the play. Moreno stepped up and easily converted for the goal and the teams were level at 1-1.

In the second half not much changed for United as the hot and humid weather seemed to affect their play. They seemed sluggish and non-responsive for most of the remainder of the match. However, they did have two golden opportunities to win the match. Rodney Wallace had his 70th minute bid blocked after some nice work by Chris Pontius deep along the right flank gave his fellow rookie the opportunity. Wallace was involved in United’s other glorious chance to win the match in the 90th minute. A lovely exchange along the left sideline between Wallace and Pontius sent Wallace into the box, His cutback pass ended on the foot of Christian Gomez and his effort was well saved by Firpo goalkeeper Juan Jose Gomez and United’s evening came to a disappointing end.

United Notes

– United is now 0-5-2 all-time in the reformatted Champions League

– Usual starters Marc Burch, Josh Wicks Bryan Namoff were on the 18-man roster but did not see game action

– M Ely Allen was on the bench as well but did not see his debut for the Black and Red

– United is still in negotiations with Burundi defender David Habarugira

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.