In Mexico, United Faces a Tall Order

Coach Tom Soehn's United squad will play at a 7,900-foot elevation.
Coach Tom Soehn's United squad will play at a 7,900-foot elevation. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A couple days before D.C. United's match at Kansas City last Saturday, Coach Tom Soehn was asked what he thought was more important: the MLS season opener against the Wizards or the road leg of the Champions' Cup semifinals against Mexican club Pachuca tonight?

"I know what the answer is but I can't share it," he said.

Soehn then paused and added, diplomatically: "They are both important. It's always important to start the season well, but we always stress the importance of tournaments and how we can make a name for not only the organization but for the league in a positive way."

With the 2-0 loss to the Wizards out of the way, United has turned its full attention back to the Champions' Cup, a 46-year-old regional tournament that will send the winner to the Club World Cup in Japan next winter. United routed Harbour View of Jamaica by a 6-1, two-game aggregate in March, but will face greater resistance tonight in a country where D.C. has never won.

In 2005, after earning a 1-1 tie at home in the semifinal opener of this same tournament, United was blasted by Pumas, 5-0, in Mexico City. Last spring, at the same stage of the Champions' Cup, Chivas Guadalajara overcame an early deficit to eliminate the MLS visitors, 2-1. And last fall, as guests in a second-tier Latin American tournament known as Copa Sudamericana, Chivas scored in the second half to edge visiting United, 1-0, and win the round-of-16 series.

"You always think positive, so we have to think it will be all right," team captain Jaime Moreno said. "We will go into it with a mind-set of getting a good result. Unfortunately, we have never gotten it down there, so now we have another chance."

United officials had international competition in mind when they revamped the roster this past winter, adding seasoned Latin Americans Marcelo Gallardo, Gonzalo Mart¿nez, Gonzalo Peralta and Franco Niell to a squad that already included veterans such as Moreno, Luciano Emilio, Ben Olsen, Bryan Namoff and Fred.

The club will also play in SuperLiga, an MLS-Mexican event this summer, and this fall's Champions League, which is modeled after the European competition of the same name.

United won the 1998 Champions' Cup, defeating Mexican teams Leon and Toluca at RFK Stadium, and captured the short-lived Interamerican Cup a few months later by upsetting Vasco da Gama of Brazil. But other than the Los Angeles Galaxy's 2000 Champions' Cup title, MLS teams have not fared well in international play.

To prepare itself for Pachuca, Soehn played Fred for only 33 minutes against the Wizards and lifted Niell early in the second half. He pulled defender Marc Burch in the 57th minute and held out Moreno, who might be ready to start tonight after recovering from a hamstring injury.

With the second leg of the total-goals series set for April 9 at RFK, United does not have to win tonight. But any realistic hope of advancing to the final against the Houston Dynamo or Saprissa (Costa Rica) would require a tie or, at the very worst, a one-goal defeat.

Pachuca, which has spent much of its 107-year history in Mexico's second division, is the tournament's defending champion. Los Tuzos, or the Gophers, also won the title in 2002. They reached this year's semifinals by defeating Motagua (Honduras), 1-0, at home following a scoreless tie in Honduras.

To minimize the effects of playing at an elevation of approximately 7,900 feet, United did not arrive until yesterday. Physiological research has shown the best approach for playing at altitude is to acclimate for at least a week or wait as long as possible before arriving.

"It's good to have a game coming up so quickly so we have a chance to erase this memory," goalkeeper Zach Wells said after the loss to Kansas City. "We know the challenge ahead of us in Mexico and we just want to put ourselves in a good position before we play them at home."

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