D.C. United Faces Stiff Champions League Test Against Mexican Club Toluca

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

D.C. United's ambitions have always reached beyond MLS, and with regular involvement in competitions beyond its borders, the club has experienced the challenges of soccer outside the modest U.S. league.

The latest opportunity to test the international waters is the CONCACAF Champions League, which is modeled after the wildly popular European version and determines the best club in North and Central America and the Caribbean.

But since last fall, when this meatier concept replaced other regional concoctions, United has had a rough time of it. After going winless in the inaugural competition last year, D.C. labored to survive the preliminary round this month. On Wednesday night, it faces a critical match at RFK Stadium against Mexican club Toluca in the second of six group games.

United lost its opener last week, 3-1, to Marathon of Honduras, and, with a defeat against Toluca, would face long odds of earning one of Group B's two quarterfinal slots.

"We wanted at least a point in Honduras. We didn't get it, and now we're playing probably the strongest team in the group," midfielder Andrew Jacobson said. "We have to show that we can play with them."

In two seasons, United is 0-6-3 in the Champions League, including 0-5-1 last year. It advanced to the group stage this year, but only after winning a penalty kick tiebreaker with Salvadoran club Firpo following a pair of 1-1 draws.

The Columbus Crew and Houston Dynamo, MLS's other entries, received byes into the group stage and won their first games last week.

Since MLS's launch 13-plus years ago, only two of its teams, United (1998) and the Los Angeles Galaxy (2000), have worn the regional crown. Before last year, it was known as the Champions' Cup and didn't utilize group play. Mexican teams have won four straight titles and six of the past eight.

Toluca's visit comes at a rough period for United, which has slipped to fifth place in MLS's Eastern Conference and is 0-4-4 in its past eight matches in all competitions. United played well against Los Angeles on Saturday but settled for a 0-0 tie, leaving it two points out of a playoff spot with eight league games remaining.

"We need a win desperately, any way we can take it," said midfielder-forward Santino Quaranta, who noted that, because of an absence caused by U.S. national team duty and the team's current slide, he hasn't been on the field for a United victory in 2 1/2 months.

With a league game at Mexico City power Club America this weekend, it is unclear how many Toluca regulars will play against United.

United's coaching staff watched video of Toluca's 1-0 Champions League victory last week at San Juan Jabloteh (Trinidad and Tobago), considered the weakest team in the group, and its 3-0 rout over visiting Santos Laguna in Mexican play Sunday.

"They showed a lot of vulnerabilities [against San Juan Jabloteh] and didn't play with the same passion they played with at home," United Coach Tom Soehn said. "I expect them to feel our humidity [in Washington] and feel their legs a bit from [last Sunday's] game and travel."

United Notes: Thabiso "Boyzzz" Khumalo (infected broken wrist) was placed on the injured list, creating a senior roster opening for Tiyi Shipalane, a fellow South African wing who has joined the club on loan from third-division Harrisburg. Shipalane is available for the Champions League and MLS games but ineligible for the U.S. Open Cup final next Wednesday against Seattle because he competed in the tournament this summer for Harrisburg. . . .

Brazilian striker Luciano Emilio received a green card for permanent residency and will no longer count against the MLS foreign player limit.

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