United 1, Universidad Catolica 1

D.C. United had a wonderful opportunity last night to show how much it has grown in 10 seasons. The opponent was a mid-level club from South America, the event a meaningful tournament featuring a prestigious field of participants. Here was an uncommon chance to show an important sector of the international soccer establishment that MLS had made significant strides.

But D.C. yielded a careless goal just before the half and, although it recovered in time to earn a 1-1 tie with Universidad Catolica of Chile on Jamil Walker's individual effort with about 10 minutes left, the performance and result before an estimated 12,000 at RFK Stadium were a clear disappointment.

United is now faced with having to travel 5,000 miles to Santiago, Chile, next Thursday and win -- or score at least twice during a tie -- to advance to the quarterfinals of the Copa Sudamericana. The first tiebreaker in the two-game series is away goals. If the teams play another 1-1 tie, penalty kicks would decide it.

"You don't want them to score, obviously, and they did," Walker said. "Now you've got to come back and get two goals and they can bunker in and basically play for the 0-0 [tie]. . . . It's going to be tougher playing at their home."

In some ways, United, the first MLS team invited to this three-year-old event, was fortunate to earn a tie last night. Catolica, a 68-year-old club leading its domestic league with an unbeaten record, displayed a greater sophistication with the ball, quicker passing and unshaken defensive composure until Walker's late equalizer.

Both teams had chances to go ahead in the closing moments, but a vicious shot by Catolica's Eduardo Rubio smashed against the crossbar and a short header by United's Facundo Erpen missed fractionally wide.

"On the international level, you have to play faster," Coach Peter Nowak said. "Catolica did a pretty good job going forward with 1-2 touches. It was pretty dangerous stuff, but we pushed the game until the end. . . . It's still open, it's two games, and we'll see what happens over there."

The onus was on United, playing at home, to instigate play, but Catolica didn't sit back. It provided for a fast-paced and entertaining first half. United's finest chance came in the 39th minute, when Jaime Moreno's pass found Christian Gomez making a well-timed run. He was in by himself, but Jose Maria Buljubasich made a kick save on the unimaginative shot.

Then in injury time, a moment after the quick-reacting Buljubasich denied Dema Kovalenko's tight-angled attempt, Catolica took the lead. Mauricio Zenteno delivered a long ball over the top of D.C.'s defense. Two big bounces later, Jorge Quinteros had beaten defender Brandon Prideaux to the ball and lifted it over committed goalkeeper Nick Rimando.

Catolica wasn't fazed by United's urgent play in the second half, but in the 81st minute, Walker, a halftime entry, fought and spun around defender Facundo Imboden to poke a spinning ball past Buljubasich.

"I don't think we came out with the intensity we needed," forward Santino Quaranta said. "It's about finishing your chances, and both teams had them and both didn't finish them. Now we've got to do a better job on the road."

United Notes: Jamaican forward Fabian Dawkins, the second-leading scorer in the top U.S. minor league while with Atlanta, will begin a tryout today and could be signed before tomorrow's roster deadline. . . . Midfielder Stephen deRoux (High Point) was signed to a developmental contract and Walker was upgraded from developmental to the senior roster. . . . United will return to its MLS schedule Saturday against Colorado at RFK.

Universidad Catolica's Eduardo Rubio cuts between D.C. United's John Wilson, left, Freddy Adu at RFK.