In only its 10th season, MLS hasn't had many genuine opportunities to measure itself against the established leagues of world soccer. Exhibition victories over European and South American clubs have been warmly received by American fans and league officials but weren't true indicators of MLS's place in the sport's hierarchy.
Tonight, however, D.C. United will have a chance to test itself against an eminent team in a serious setting when it hosts Mexican power Pumas in the first leg of the Champions' Cup semifinals at RFK Stadium.
_____Champions' Cup_____D.C. United vs. Pumas (Mexico)
Who: D.C. United vs. Pumas (Mexico).
What: First leg of two-game semifinal series.
Where: RFK Stadium.
When: 7:30 p.m.
TV: Fox Soccer Channel.
Radio: www.dcunited.com (English), WACA-1540 (Spanish).
"There's a different feel about this game," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "There's a sense of importance here. It's a great opportunity for us. We know they're a great team and we know we're going to have to be ready to get a result."
Unlike most encounters between MLS and foreign teams, there is much at stake. The series champion will advance to next month's finals against Monterrey (Mexico) or Saprissa (Costa Rica) and play for a berth in the world championships in Japan in December. The runner-up is expected to receive an invitation to a major South American competition.
Despite their proximity, MLS and Mexican teams have met each other infrequently and usually under casual circumstances. Tonight, however, features the defending champions from each league in a meaningful competition. The second leg will be played next Wednesday night in Mexico City.
"Any time you play champions from other leagues," defender Brandon Prideaux said, "it's a good test for our league, a good measuring stick."
Pumas is coached by Hugo Sanchez, perhaps the greatest player in Mexican soccer history, who spent one year in MLS (1996) with Dallas. He has helped restore Pumas' winning ways after the club fell behind Chivas and Club America, among others, in recent years, but this spring it is in last place in its group and 15th out of 18 teams in the overall standings with a 3-6-1 record.
Pumas' roster includes Argentine forward Bruno Marioni, Bolivian forward Joaquin Botero and Mexican national team starter Jaime Lozano.
United Coach Peter Nowak isn't expected to make many changes in the starting lineup, which produced a 2-0 victory over Chivas USA in the MLS opener Saturday.
Commenting on United, Pumas midfielder Gonzalo Pineda said on the team's Web site: "It is a good team. We have already seen some videos and I believe that although they are good to the attack, its defense has some problems."
Besides contending with Pumas, United will have to deal with the new field at RFK. Workers have spent the past three days covering the dirt baseball infield with turf, moving the east-side bleachers back into place and lining the field. The team was not permitted to practice on it yesterday.
"It's completely out of our hands, but we'll see," Olsen said. "They're saying it's going to be great. Until I see otherwise or fall over a big divot, that's what it is."
Added Nowak, "It's green, it's grass, it's got two goals, 22 players, that's all that's important."
United Notes: Defender Bryan Namoff (back) didn't practice again yesterday and appears doubtful tonight. . . . Reserve midfielder Tim Lawson, who played in one nonleague game last year, was waived. . . . Midfielder Dema Kovalenko made his first appearance at practice since breaking his foot but is weeks from returning. . . . United President Kevin Payne met with Comcast SportsNet officials yesterday in an attempt to finalize a local television package. TV negotiations involving the Nationals and Orioles had delayed United's plans.