United, Firpo Play to Tie in CONCACAF Champions League Prelim

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Another match, another tie for D.C. United, only this one might end up being the most costly.

United has settled for 10 draws in the MLS regular season, mostly disappointing results that, nonetheless, have helped the club linger near the top of the Eastern Conference. But Tuesday night's 1-1 deadlock with Firpo of El Salvador before 8,026 at RFK Stadium was not the outcome that United truly required in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League preliminary stage.

In a home-and-home series that uses away goals as the first tiebreaker, Firpo would advance to group play with a scoreless result next Tuesday in San Salvador. United needs to win the return match or score at least twice in a tie. A 1-1 draw would force overtime and, if necessary, penalty kicks.

"Knowing that if you don't take care of your results at home, you are going to be in for a tough environment and a difficult circumstance," United Coach Tom Soehn said. "We know what is ahead now."

The CONCACAF Champions League, modeled after the European competition of the same name, is the regional tournament for clubs from North and Central America and the Caribbean. United is hoping to make amends for its 0-5-1 record in group play last year.

Tuesday's result, however, was disappointing on several levels. Defender Greg Janicki's blunder led to Mario Alejandro Benitez's goal midway through the first half before United's Jaime Moreno tied it with a penalty kick just before intermission.

United was off target on many quality scoring chances and allowed Firpo -- which is in preseason and was invited to participate after another Salvadoran club withdrew -- to dictate play for much of the muggy evening.

"We played like we are on a neutral field," goalkeeper Milos Kocic said of United's lack of passion at home, where it is undefeated in all competitions this year. "I was yelling at the guys, 'Let's go, let's go, this is our field.' I hate tying. We have so many this season and we better step up soon if we want to stay on the top in the league and especially now with the game away" next week.

As much as Soehn would have liked to play his best players for 90 minutes, there were prevailing factors. The club had played a league match Saturday night at San Jose, flown cross-country Sunday, and with an MLS game at Western Conference leader Houston approaching this weekend, he decided to blend regulars and reserves.

The lineup was a surprise to Firpo Coach Agustin Castillo, who said through an interpreter, "We were prepared for a totally different team."

Added defender Manuel Salazar: "When we saw the lineup and saw there were players that we hadn't prepared for, it was motivating for us to go out and play a good game."

United's only usual starters were Moreno, Dejan Jakovic and Rodney Wallace. Ben Olsen and Fred were not included on the game-day roster and United hoped not to have to call upon Christian Gómez, Luciano Emilio and Chris Pontius. All, however, entered at various points. Emilio came in late in the first half -- unusual timing but necessitated by Ange N'Silu's inconspicuous performance.

In the 26th minute, disaster struck. Janicki had the ball at his feet at the top of United's penalty area, seeking passing options. When Benitez applied pressure, Janicki failed to improvise. Benitez stripped the ball from the lumbering defender and, with his next touch, tucked a left-footed shot from 12 yards into the far lower corner.

"It was just a lack of concentration on my part," Janicki said. "It was just a stupid thing. We talked about concentrating throughout a game and playing a full 90 minutes, and then I go out and do that."

In the 42nd minute, however, United was awarded a penalty kick when Wallace was upended in the box. Moreno converted into the right side with a powerful shot just out of the reach of goalkeeper Juan Jose Gomez.

United's shooting was imprecise throughout the second half. Christian Gómez should have done better with a shot in the box in the 90th minute.

"We didn't take care of our [scoring] chances -- we had plenty -- and I don't know if we adapted to the game early," Soehn said. "I thought we let them have too much possession. They created more opportunities than we would have liked. It took a little bit to find our chemistry, but they gave us fits as well."

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