For the finale of its Champions' Cup semifinal series against Pumas of Mexico City, D.C. United has traveled 2,000 miles southwest and 7,000 feet up.
"We're going to try to overlook the altitude," midfielder Ben Olsen said yesterday. "It's no different than when we go to Colorado and play in Denver. We do fine there. We're excited and we're going to block that side of it out."
_____Champions' Cup_____Champions' Cup
Who: D.C. United at Pumas.
What: Second and final leg of semifinal series (1-1 tie in first game).
Where: Olympic University Stadium, Mexico City.
When: 9:30 p.m.
TV: Fox Soccer Channel.
Other Series: Saprissa (Costa Rica) at Monterrey (Mexico), 10 p.m. (2-2 tie in first game).
Easier said than done. Denver is no Mexico City -- in elevation (5,280 vs. 7,300 feet) or air quality -- and the Colorado Rapids are no Pumas, the defending Mexican league champions who put themselves in great position to advance to next month's finals by earning a 1-1 tie in last week's first leg at RFK Stadium.
There are two ways to approach a high-altitude game: practice in the mountains for several weeks, like the U.S. national team did before its 2-1 loss in a World Cup qualifier at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City on March 27, or arrive as late as possible and hope for the best.
United was scheduled to arrive last night, limiting the players' exposure in the thin air to about 22 hours before kickoff.
"I never look at, in this case, altitude, or the stadiums and the fans," Coach Peter Nowak said. "Sometimes it's in the players' mind; we just want to eliminate it. Everyone is ready mentally for this game. The physical part, even [though] we have so many games, is pretty good. We hold up pretty good together. . . . We're going full speed and we'll see what happens."
United has a lot more than elevation and smog to worry about. Poor starts at the beginning of each half have troubled the team in each of its past two matches -- 1-1 ties at home with Pumas last Wednesday and with the Chicago Fire in an MLS regular season game this past Saturday.
United found itself chasing Pumas around the field for long stretches in the first leg of the series and was fortunate the Mexican club was unable to score until a disputed penalty kick early in the second half.
"We gave them too much space," Nowak said, "and they are very smart."
Pumas will be without starting central defenders Leandro Augosto and Gerardo Galindo, who are serving one-game suspensions for accumulating yellow cards, and possibly central defender Joaquin Beltran (leg injury). But Uruguayan forward Diego Alonso will return from suspension and midfielder Jaime Lozano, a starter on Mexico's national team, will probably play after sitting out the series opener for undisclosed reasons.
United should have everyone available, except defender Bryan Namoff, who has been sidelined for several weeks because of a back strain. Defender Brandon Prideaux has recovered from the flu after missing two games.
"They came right at us at home, so they can't come at us any harder," Olsen said. "We know what to expect. If we break that initial pressure, we're going to have some chances. We just have to do well with the chances we get because they're going to be few and far between."
United will need forward Alecko Eskandarian to rediscover his scoring touch after three subpar performances, most notably on Saturday, when he missed two clear chances.
"I've got to work through it," said Eskandarian, the MLS Cup MVP last season who has been hampered by a sore knee the last few weeks. "I'm happy I'm getting [the ball] in the right spots and giving myself chances -- just got to put 'em away now."
United Notes: If the game is tied after regulation, two 15-minute overtime periods and, if necessary, penalty kicks will be used to determine the winner. United spent the last portion of practice yesterday working on penalty kicks.