By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009
For the past few days, D.C. United has been formulating a plan to defeat Honduran club Marathon in a critical CONCACAF Champions League match at RFK Stadium on Thursday night. For the past few days, Marathon has been devising a plan just to get to Washington.
With the four international airports in Honduras closed this week amid political unrest, Marathon was forced to take an eight-hour bus ride along slow roads and across a border from its base in San Pedro Sula to Guatemala City to catch a flight to the United States and then connect to Washington.
The club wasn't expected to arrive until about 20 hours before kickoff of a match that might end up deciding which team advances to the quarterfinals of the tournament.
United officials were notified Tuesday by CONCACAF, the governing body for soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean, that Marathon was having difficulty traveling. Another Honduran club, Real España, had similar issues ahead of a trip to Mexico City for a match Thursday against Pumas.
Postponing the games was an option, but both teams were given "permission to leave the country by bus and then were able to find flights with the necessary space in order to arrive on time," CONCACAF spokesman Ben Spencer said. "Both teams deserve credit for making arrangements on short notice in what is a very difficult time in their country."
Honduras has been tense since June, when President Manuel Zelaya was deposed in a military-led coup. On Monday, Zelaya covertly returned to the capital, Tegucigalpa, and took shelter in the Brazilian embassy.
The political turmoil has overshadowed the country's sporting concerns, including Marathon's match against United. With a victory, second-place Marathon (2-1, six points) would join front-running Toluca (Mexico) in securing the Group B berths in next year's knockout stage. Third-place United (1-2, three) needs to win by at least two goals to legitimately remain in the race.
If the teams are even on points after six matches apiece, the first tiebreaker is head to head. The next is goal differential in their two meetings, followed by goals scored in the away leg. Marathon won the first game, 3-1, in San Pedro Sula.
A 2-0 United victory Thursday would lift the MLS team ahead on away goals (1-0).
"We need the result and we have to score some goals," said United Coach Tom Soehn, whose club defeated last-place San Juan Jabloteh, 1-0, last week in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. "We know what is at stake and what we have to do, and who the opponent is. The rest is up to us."
United will have to do it without playmaker Christian G?mez, who will serve a yellow card suspension, as well as three top-choice defenders: Bryan Namoff (concussion), Dejan Jakovic (hernia) and Marc Burch (ankle). Jakovic and Burch are close to returning, but Namoff probably won't be back until next week at the earliest.
Julius James, Avery John, Devon McTavish and David Habarugira are the top candidates to start on the backline against Marathon, which is without suspended forward Jerry Palacios.
The D.C. attack will receive a boost with the return of Santino Quaranta (quadriceps) and Fred, who was sidelined with a calf contusion and, while recuperating, was weakened by swine flu.
The need to score multiple goals "gives you more freedom to go out and attack and play the type of soccer that the fans like to see," Quaranta said of United, which has scored more than one goal just once in the past 11 matches in all official competitions. "We've been getting away from that a little bit in trying to find our identity as a team."
United should also benefit from a recent nine-day break between games, its longest since mid-July. The Jabloteh match was its 10th in 31 days. Refreshed and reenergized, the club sees an opportunity to make a strong run in both the Champions League and regular season.
"It's always nice to get some time to yourself," rookie midfielder-forward Chris Pontius said. "You are with these guys every day and sometimes people get on edge and have ups and downs. Everyone came back mentally and physically rested, which is a good thing when you are at this point of the year and you're trying to make a big run."
United Notes: United has been selected as the opponent for expansion Philadelphia Union's home debut next spring. Because Union's new stadium in Chester, Pa., won't be completed in time, the April 10 match will be played at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL's Eagles. MLS will announce all other home openers Thursday. United is tentatively set to play its first game at Dallas on March 27 and then host New England a week later.