By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
When D.C. United faced Mexican power Pumas in the 2005 CONCACAF Champions Cup, the MLS standard bearers earned a draw at home and then were eliminated with a loss on the road. Later that year, facing Chilean club Catolica in the Copa Sudamericana, United again earned a draw at home and was eliminated with a road loss. It happened once more this spring; facing CD Guadalajara Chivas of Mexico in the Champions Cup, United drew at home before coming up short on the road.
So with Chivas back in the District tonight for the beginning of a Copa Sudamericana two-game, aggregate-goals series, United's veterans have focused on breaking that pattern of close-but-not-quite international results.
"I think we're about tired and fed up with close," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "We need to start stepping up and making sure that in these competitions, we finish the job. The last couple of years we've always played well, and when I say 'we,' I mean all the [MLS] clubs. We've done everything but win. Now it's time for us to start taking advantage of playing well against these teams and bury them. Finishing the job off, that's the challenge."
And to the delight of several players, this latest challenge will come against a familiar foe. "We have some things to take care of against them," as midfielder Brian Carroll put it.
Copa Sudamericana is the second-most prestigious South American club championship, a tournament that opened its doors to Central and North American teams in 2005 and was won by Mexico's Pachuca last winter. Chivas and United both advanced to the round of 16 on the strength of their performances in this spring's Champions Cup, when Chivas knocked off United in the semifinals. The deciding game came in rainy Guadalajara, when United coughed up a 1-0 first-half lead and was done in by a fluke goal that slipped through goalkeeper Troy Perkins's hands.
"We still have a sour taste in our mouth from the last time we played them, and we want a little payback," defender Bryan Namoff said. "It's up to us now to turn the tables a little bit and get our result at home, so that we can go down there and we can come back with a win."
United, of course, will trot out a dramatically different lineup tonight. Since the loss to Chivas -- which came before the MLS regular season began and prefaced a season-opening three-game losing streak -- United has worked Brazilian Fred into its starting lineup, traded for defender Greg Vanney, discovered a hidden gem in left back Marc Burch and switched formations, abandoning its 3-5-2 set in favor of a 4-4-2 model. United hasn't lost in its past 10 league games.
"Obviously we're a lot better team now, and I think it'll be a much better game," said midfielder Josh Gros, who missed most of the deciding game after suffering a concussion. "Our defense has come together, our back line is doing a great job, and we have a bunch of guys that are hot right now. You put those together, and that's all you need."
Chivas, too, has undergone change, with playmaker Adolfo Bautista -- who scored the first goal against United in Mexico -- having departed for fellow Mexican club Jaguares. Chivas's attack has withered in the current Mexican season; the club has scored seven goals in nine games, with just one goal in its past four road games.
The series will conclude on Oct. 2 in Guadalajara, with the winner meeting either Arsenal of Argentina or Goias EC of Brazil next month. Arsenal leads that matchup, 3-2, and will host the return leg tonight.
But for now, the focus remains on Chivas. The history of bad blood between the U.S. and Mexican national teams has crossed over to some club competitions, but United's players said their previous hard-fought series against Chivas transcended any national concerns.
"To me, it's more about Chivas versus D.C. United," Olsen said, "and it's a credit to this club that we can have a rivalry with one of the most storied clubs in Mexico."
"Of course it's a rivalry," Coach Tom Soehn agreed. "We both wanted that [Champions Cup] tournament really bad, and we came out on the short end. So we've got a little payback, and they're the guys who took it away from us."