By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
The Champions' Cup semifinals between D.C. United and Mexican club Pachuca will be decided by total goals, so, in essence, the series is a 180-minute game separated into two long halves played at strikingly different altitudes eight days apart.
In last week's encounter, held at 7,900 feet in Mexico's south-central mountains, reserve Luis Montes scored twice in Pachuca's 2-0 victory.
In tonight's finale, to be staged just above sea level at RFK Stadium, United will need a two-goal advantage to even the series and force overtime. Anything less will result in elimination from the 46-year-old regional championship, which rewards the victor with a trip to Japan for the Club World Cup late this year.
In the other semifinal, Houston faces Saprissa tonight in San Jose, Costa Rica, following a scoreless tie in the opener.
"Our guys respond well to being home," United Coach Tom Soehn said. "You have so many new guys, it takes a while to get a road mentality, so obviously coming home is a good thing."
United has faltered in the semifinals against a Mexican opponent two of the previous three years, but for the first time, it will play the second leg at home. D.C. has already played at RFK twice this spring, scoring a combined nine goals in rousing victories over Harbour View (Jamaica) in the Champions' Cup quarterfinals and Toronto FC in its MLS home opener Saturday.
Facing a two-goal deficit before the opening whistle sounds, United must resist the impulse of trying to pull even right away.
"You don't have to win the game in 15 minutes; you do it over a course of 90 minutes," Soehn said. "You have to be patient and we will get our chances."
United created few chances in the first meeting and, although its lack of cohesion allowed the Mexican club to dominate possession in the second half, the thin air had an impact. Elevation in Pachuca is a half-mile higher than Denver.
"You could feel it just walking up steps," midfielder Devon McTavish recalled. "In the game, everything goes -- the legs go, the mind goes."
Tonight's setting will have no such effect on the visitors, but will provide comfort for United, which hopes to sustain the momentum from Saturday's rout of Toronto. In that match, D.C. scored twice in the first five minutes and, if not for faulty finishing and superb saves by Toronto's Greg Sutton, could have won by an embarrassing margin.
"We know Pachuca is a very strong team and we know what we have to do," Brazilian midfielder Fred said. "We have a great opportunity."
Despite Pachuca's lead in the series, United does not expect Los Tuzos (the Gophers) to take an overtly defensive posture.
"They like to play and they have the players," United forward Jaime Moreno said. "I'd be surprised if they drop back."
Added Soehn, "They have a system that works for them and I am sure they are going to stick with it."
Pachuca arrived in Washington following a 3-1 road victory against Club America on Sunday in Mexico City. Coach Enrique Meza rested some players in preparation for tonight's match.
Soehn also looked ahead, pulling three starters in the second half Saturday. He was also able to provide work for Moreno, who had not appeared in a game in almost a month after injuring a hamstring. Moreno said yesterday that he is 90 percent recovered.
Soehn might elect to start Moreno tonight and move Santino Quaranta, who had a goal and an assist in the forward role Saturday, to the midfield. Or he could save Quaranta for the second half. Regardless, United recognizes the need to score at least twice.
"When you know you have to win and have to score, it's just a different mentality going forward and attacking -- not sitting back and watching," Quaranta said. "You go out and enjoy it."
United Notes: Quaranta is wearing a small cast on his right hand after breaking a bone Saturday. . . . Third-year midfielder Justin Moose, who earned a developmental roster spot after the team declined to exercise the option on his original contract, has joined the second-tier Vancouver Whitecaps for workouts. His future with United remains unclear.