Over the weekend, United and Dallas met in the final of the ATX Pro Challenge — aka, the Armadillo Duel. While no trophy is at stake this week, the impending Champions League trip has heightened the importance of a quality performance on the road. Kickoff is slated for 8:30 p.m. ET. There are tentative plans for a live stream.
Playing the same opponent again so soon is advantageous: Sunday’s match had some bite to it, and Dallas will not want to drop another result to United, especially at home. United could use a high-intensity test before playing under duress in Central America.
“We’ll see a different Dallas team and then it’s the really deal, man,” captain Bobby Boswell said.
Coach Ben Olsen was pleased with the team’s progress over six days in Austin.
“For me, there are two things,” he said. “The fitness level is starting to get there and I now have a pretty good feel of the new guys — Markus Halsti, Jairo Arrieta, the young guys — and they now have a good feel who we are. That is starting to come together. It makes it easier for them fitting in and gelling on the field. Everything is moving, I suppose, according to plan and we’re moving in the direction of being ready for what is going to be a real tough test in Costa Rica.”
United did not concede a goal in the two tournament matches, a positive sign considering Halsti and Boswell partnered in central defense for the first time in preseason. With Steve Birnbaum nursing a minor knee injury, Halsti and Boswell are the top option for the first leg at Alajuelense. They played about 30 minutes together against the third-division Austin Aztex and 78 against FC Dallas.
United foresees Birnbaum at full strength for the second leg, March 4 at RFK Stadium.
The return of defensive midfielder Perry Kitchen from U.S. national team camp was also critical to United’s success in Austin.
“The biggest thing, to be honest, is getting Perry back,” Boswell said. “He has a mentality that helps our group. Our play was off and on in Florida, as it should be because it’s the first couple weeks. We are a team that needs a chip on our shoulder, and Perry has that edge.”
With Halsti on the backline, Kitchen and Davy Arnaud are expected to retain their effective 2014 partnership in central midfield. Chris Rolfe and Nick DeLeon seem set on the midfield flanks, and Taylor Kemp and Sean Franklin are on the corners of the backline. Bill Hamid, returning from shoulder and back ailments, was in fine form manning the Austin nets for three halves.
With Eddie Johnson and Luis Silva unavailable, Chris Pontius and Fabian Espindola have worked together up front throughout preseason.
Johnson remains out with a health issue, believed to be related to a heart condition that surfaced last fall. United officials are not expecting an update on Johnson’s status for a few more weeks, all but ruling him out of action for a considerable chunk of the spring calendar. Citing privacy guidelines, the club has not shared any medical details.
Silva (hamstring) has been active in training but sat out the first five preseason matches and will need additional time to regain fitness and form.
First-round pick Miguel Aguilar continues to show well on the right wing, scoring a terrific goal against Austin on Friday.
As for the trialists, Olsen is not expected to make any decisions until the end of the week, at the earliest. United currently has 31 players in the mix and will need to narrow the list before the regular season opener March 7 against the Montreal Impact in Washington. (Until a new labor deal is struck, teams do not know how many players they’ll be able to sign.)
About 20 players will travel to Costa Rica.
Travis Worra and Scott Goodwin are vying for the third goalkeeping slot, center back Rauwshan McKenzie is angling for a contract, newly arrived left back Luke Mishu is clinging to slim chances, attacker David Estrada is hoping to stick, and an unnamed right back — believed to be Costa Rica’s Alexander Robinson Delgado — remains an intriguing candidate after several weeks with the squad. Delgado, 26, has spent most of his career with Saprissa.
“He has a great sense about him and a lot of experience. He has done well,” Boswell said. “He seems to make the right decision on the ball. He got a yellow card [against Dallas] for trying to kill off the game at the end. That was very CONCACAF of him.”
While United has used preseason friendlies to prepare for the Champions League, Alajuelense has played 16 league matches since DCU’s 2014 playoff elimination. In the Torneo de Verano, the club has earned 17 points from eight matches and sits atop the table, two points ahead of Saprissa. On Saturday, Alajuelense played a 1-1 draw at Universidad.
Before welcoming United to Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto (18,000 seats and artificial turf), “Liga” will host Limon on Wednesday and Saprissa on Sunday.
United scouting coordinator Kurt Morsink is on assignment in Costa Rica.
For the CONCACAF matches, Alajuelense will go without starting goalkeeper Peter Pemberton and starting midfielder Kevin Sancho. Both were suspended by CONCACAF for their involvement in a melee during the group stage last fall.
Awaiting final confirmation about TV coverage, but early indications have Fox Sports 2, foxsoccer2go.com and a Spanish outlet showing each leg, both slated to start at 8 p.m. ET.