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Weary United Set to Kick Off Champions League

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Regardless of how Saturday night's MLS match at San Jose turned out, D.C. United knew it was going to have to shake off the jet lag, recover physically in a short time and quickly turn its attention to Salvadoran club Firpo for the start of the CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday night at RFK Stadium.

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The recovery process was made more difficult by United's terrible second half against the Earthquakes in which the club relinquished a two-goal lead and settled for a 2-2 tie.

"We have to turn the page, knowing it is another important game," team captain Jaime Moreno said. "It's not going to be easy, but we have no choice."

After the unsatisfactory result against San Jose, which is last in the Western Conference, United would probably prefer to work all week on its deficiencies and prepare for this weekend's league match at Western-leading Houston. Instead, D.C. needs to focus on the first leg of a two-game, preliminary-round series in the Champions League, a regional tournament involving top clubs from North and Central America and the Caribbean.

In the 2008-09 edition, Atlante became the fourth straight team from Mexico to win the title. (Before last year, the event was known as the Champions' Cup.) Only two MLS teams have captured the trophy: United in 1998 and the Los Angeles Galaxy two years later.

United, which qualified this year by winning the 2008 U.S. Open Cup, will play in El Salvador next Tuesday in pursuit of a berth in the event's group stage, which begins in mid-August. The event winner, decided next spring, will advance to the Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates in December 2010.

International competition is a high priority for United, but after the recent stumble in league play and mounting personnel issues, the timing couldn't be worse.

Midfielder Clyde Simms and midfielder-forward Thabiso Khumalo are sidelined for several weeks with injuries and midfielder-forward Santino Quaranta is just returning to the club after a month of U.S. national team duty at the Gold Cup. Quaranta seems unlikely to play against Firpo.

United aims to make amends for its performance in group play of the Champions League last year -- an 0-5-1 record and last-place finish among four teams. The New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC are also opening Champions League series this week. The Houston Dynamo and Columbus Crew received byes to the group stage.

United was initially paired with Chalatenango, but financial and administrative issues forced a withdrawal by the small club from El Salvador. The replacement was Firpo, which is based in the southeastern Salvadoran city of Usulutan and named for Luis Angel Firpo, the Argentine boxer who, in a 1923 heavyweight title bout, became a legend throughout Latin America when he knocked Jack Dempsey out of the ring. (He eventually lost.)

In selecting his lineup Tuesday, United Coach Tom Soehn will have to determine which regulars have recovered physically, which ones need rest before Saturday's match at Houston and which reserves could have an impact.

Rookie goalkeeper Milos Kocic, who started in last Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup semifinal, might get the nod over starter Josh Wicks. Defenders Avery John and Greg Janicki, and midfielders Devon McTavish, John DiRaimondo and Danny Szetela are among the other prime candidates to fill in.

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