D.C. United put in almost six weeks of work preparing for the start of the 2015 campaign, honing a squad that remained largely intact over the winter. But without any genuine matches since November, all the groundwork – six friendlies and hours of training in three conducive locations – could not have possibly prepared United for the first test.
And that first test is a difficult one.
Before the MLS season begins, United will engage a well-seasoned Costa Rican club, Alajuelense, in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, the region’s exclusive club tournament.
The first leg is Thursday night in Alajuela, Costa Rica. The return match in the total-goals affair is next Wednesday at RFK Stadium.
United is on the same page as the other 19 MLS clubs. It is not, however, on level terms with other CONCACAF teams, who follow a different playing calendar. Since United opened training camp in mid-January, Alajuelense has played 10 league matches. Barring a work stoppage in lieu of a collective bargaining agreement, MLS will launch its 20th regular season March 6.
Is the D.C. squad capable of matching the hosts’ fitness and form?
“I don’t know if we can,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “Everybody wants to be halfway or three-quarters of the way through the season when you play these games – that is when teams are at their best – but that’s not the case.
“The familiarity with each other will hopefully help us. We don’t have to work on what we are about; that part is already here. We’re just trying to catch up with fitness. We’re close.”
United was deep into the 2014 slate when it breezed through the group stage of the tournament, sweeping all four matches to earn the No. 1 seed in the quarterfinals. After a winter pause, however, United is a clear underdog against Alajuelense, which managed one victory and three draws in a more rigorous group and is now in mid-season mode.
Aside from unequal timing, United must contend with artificial turf at 18,000-seat Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto and warmer, thicker air in Costa Rica. D.C. did train a bit on turf – the enormous University of Texas football stadium provided a cavernous setting one day two weeks ago – but acclimation plans were stunted by a cold spell in Florida and Texas.
The club arrived in Costa Rica on Monday night, allowing for some 72 hours of familiarization. The tables will turn next week: The long-range forecast calls for the game-time temperature in the thirties.
United players declined to use the seasoning gap as a crutch.
“We had to get ourselves as ready as best we could,” captain Bobby Boswell said. “We’ve done a pretty good job, and if things don’t work out for us, it’s not because of where they are or we are in the season.”
United is carrying great responsibility. Montreal was the only other MLS side to reach the quarterfinals. (The Impact earned a 2-2 draw at Mexico’s Pachuca on Tuesday.) CONCACAF failure has bedeviled the league for years, undermining its ambition to gain further global acceptance.
Since the Los Angeles Galaxy won the 2000 title, Real Salt Lake (2011) is the only MLS team to hit the final. The trophy has remained in Mexican hands for nine consecutive years.
United has not appeared in a late knockout round since 2008, losing to Mexico’s Pachuca in the semis. (At the time, the tournament was called the Champions’ Cup and did not use a group format.)
While the U.S. national team is 0-8-2 in Costa Rica, MLS clubs have come away with three victories and two draws in 10 visits since 2008-09. Twice, they have played there early in the year: Real Salt Lake lost at Saprissa, 2-1, in the second leg of the 2010-11 semifinals but advanced on a 3-2 aggregate; Los Angeles tied Herediano, 0-0, in the 2012-13 quarterfinals, then returned home for a 4-1 victory.
Given the circumstances, United would embrace a draw — or even better, a draw with goals. (Away goals are the first tiebreaker.)
“A draw will be great for us because then we come home,” forward Fabian Espindola said. “We just have to do a good job there.”
Espindola, United’s most influential attacker last season, is eligible to play in both quarterfinal legs despite a six-game suspension levied by MLS for shoving an assistant referee in last year’s Eastern Conference playoffs. The ban applies only to regular season matches.
Intrigue surrounds the back line. Center back Steve Birnbaum recovered from a knee injury but was not effective in his return last Friday, a 3-1 defeat to short-handed FC Dallas in the preseason finale. Midfielder Markus Halsti, a center back option, missed the Dallas match with a leg ailment and did not travel to Costa Rica.
Alajuelense is without two starters, goalkeeper Peter Pemberton and midfielder Kevin Sancho, who are serving six-game CONCACAF suspensions for involvement in a Champions League melee last fall.
United scouting coordinator Kurt Morsink has been on assignment in his native country to chart Alajuelense, which has lost two straight league home matches and relinquished first place Sunday with a 2-0 defeat to nemesis Saprissa. United’s Jairo Arrieta, a former Saprissa forward, and defender Alexander Robinson Delgado, who has been on an extended tryout with United, have also offered insight.
“It’s going to be a great environment and we expect a huge fight,” Olsen said. “It’s a tough task, but it’s a great early test for us. We’re battle-tested and we can get through this.”
United notes: Travis Worra is the No. 3 goalkeeper on the trip, a signal the club plans to soon announce the signing of the undrafted rookie from the University of New Hampshire. He has been on trial for several weeks. [UPDATE: Worra has signed.]
D.C. United at Alajuelense
What: CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, first leg.
Where: Alajuela, Costa Rica.
When: Thursday, 8 p.m. ET.
TV: Fox Sports 2, Univision Deportes.
Live streams: Fox Sports Go, foxsoccer2go.com.