United puts MLS playoff chase on hold to focus on Toluca
D.C. United is lodged in an extraordinary chase for one of the last three playoff berths in MLS, but ever since the final whistle sounded on its critical victory over league-leader Columbus on Saturday at RFK Stadium, the club has had to turn its attention to an entirely different pursuit.
Four days before concluding the regular season, United is in Toluca, Mexico (elevation: 8,750 feet) on Tuesday night for the essential finale of group play in the CONCACAF Champions League, an international tournament in which passage to the quarterfinals remains at stake.
Two clubs in the four-team quartet will advance, and at the moment, United (3-2) is second behind Toluca (4-1) and ahead of Marathon of Honduras (3-2) on a head-to-head, goal-differential tiebreaker. But with Marathon set to play San Juan Jabloteh (0-5) in Trinidad and Tobago on Thursday, United is probably going to need to win in order to join Toluca in the knockout stage early next year.
A United victory would render Marathon's game meaningless, but if it ties or loses, D.C. would need the Hondurans to do the same against Jabloteh, which, at home, has offered stiff resistance against Toluca and United in 1-0 defeats. History is not on D.C.'s side. Not only have MLS clubs failed to win a competitive match in Mexico since the league's launch in 1996, the U.S. national team has never won there in 24 attempts. United is 0-5 with one goal scored and 12 conceded.
Nonetheless, the 1-0 triumph over the Crew the other day did seem to embolden a United side that had lost three straight games at home.
"I know a lot of people say that no one beats Mexican teams at home, but I think we can do it," defender Dejan Jakovic said. "It doesn't help to have to get on a plane and fly to Mexico when we have the playoffs to worry about, but that's how soccer works everywhere."
With the last league match in mind, Coach Tom Soehn decided to leave behind both of his regular defensive midfielders, Ben Olsen and Clyde Simms. (Neither is on the injury list.) He is also without Andrew Jacobson, another option in that deep midfield role, who strained a hamstring during Saturday's victory.
Devon McTavish, Rodney Wallace and Danny Szetela are the candidates to step in. After playing with three defenders and five midfielders Saturday, Soehn is likely to return to four on each line. Forward Jaime Moreno and defender Marc Burch also remained in Washington, and Bryan Namoff (concussion) and midfielder-forward Santino Quaranta (foot surgery) are out.
With its quarterfinal spot secured, Toluca is expected to rest several regulars. The Red Devils -- who defeated United, 3-1, at RFK in August -- are atop Mexican Group One with an 8-2-2 record, including 5-0-2 at home. They played to a 1-1 tie with Tigres on Saturday and are scheduled to play at Tecos in Guadalajara this Friday.
Toluca, the city, sits at the highest altitude for a major Mexican population, about 1,400 feet above nearby Mexico City. United has been outscored, 9-0, in three all-time matches played in Mexico's thin air (against Cruz Azul and Pumas in the capital, as well as in Pachuca).
Goalkeeper Steve Cronin, who shined in his D.C. debut Saturday, is expected to start again ahead of rookie Milos Kocic. Midfielder-forward Chris Pontius will return from a yellow card suspension and midfielder Fred might be called upon at some point after not playing Saturday.
While United's Champions League situation is fairly straight forward, its playoff state is unsettled. Seven teams are in contention for three berths, and in addition to needing a victory against already-eliminated Kansas City, United will need help in games elsewhere in the league.