A point was all that was really needed by D.C. United on Wednesday night in Panama against Arabe Unido in their first CONCACAF Champions League group game this year. A point, combined with a win in the return fixture, would put United through to next spring's knockout stages (provided the Black-and-Red took advantage of the two games versus Montego Bay). But after a side chock full of changes battled back and forth for 80 minutes, Miguel Aguilar gave United all three points with his first professional goal in United's 1-0 win.
Chad Ashton - in charge of the team as a suspended Ben Olsen and several starters stayed back - put out a classic DC 4-4-2 side, with Jairo Arrieta supported by Facundo Coria, with Makus Halsti, Jared Jeffrey, Chris Pontius, and Aguilar in midfield. Andrew Dykstra got the start in goal, while Jalen Robinson and Luke Mishu were given chances to prove themselves flanking Steve Birnbaum and Kofi Opare.
Arabe Unido came out strong as Armando Polo, the danger man for most of the night for Arabe, got behind the United defense in the 3rd minute. Dykstra forced Polo wide, and then the striker's weak attempt at goal was easily cleared by United's defense.
Pontius, in his first start since returning from injury, had a decent look from range on a first time effort that was held by goalkeeper Miguel Lloyd. Rigoberto Niño then tried his luck for Arabe from well outside of the box, only for Dykstra to push the ball over for a corner. The resulting corner was won by Abdiel Macea, but the glancing header through the box didn't get the crucial second touch.
Polo then had two chances in the next couple of minutes, by was denied both times by Dykstra. First, Renan Addles played in to Polo, but the shot was pushed away. Soon thereafter, Jose Gonzalez capped a swift move with a pass into space for Polo, only for Dykstra to save at the near post.
United's best chance in the first half came in the 35th minute, as the right back Robinson got in on the attack. His move forward was rewarded with a pass to collect in space, and his cross found Arrieta in the box. The Costa Rican rose above Fidel Caesar, but couldn't guide his header on target.
Opare got on the end of Coria's free kick in the 38th minute, but could only get a weak, backwards header on target, before Pontius cut in from the left only to fire right at Lloyd.
Addles had the first chance for Arabe Unido in the second half after the home side won a free kick in a dangerous spot in United's end. The free kick was well struck by Addles, but flew just over the bar.
Aguilar - who had up until that point been mostly quiet throughout the game - played a ball through Arabe's defense in the 56th minute for Arrieta. The Costa Rican was first to the ball, but with Lloyd charging out Arrieta attempted a chip. Unfortunately for United, it wasn't high enough and the keeper was able to make the save.
La Furia Colonense continued to look for the opener, knowing that three points were more crucial to their cause. D.C., for their part, were content to defend and await counterattacking opportunities as the game wore on. Gonzalez had a stinging shot from outside the box that Dykstra bobbled, before covering the danger.
First half tactical sub Abdiel Arroyo danced around Halsti - who had moved to center back when Birnbaum was replaced by Michael Farfan - to open up a shooting lane in the 78th minute. Arroyo's effort was powerfully struck, but ended up hurtling harmlessly into the outside netting.
A minute later, Arabe should have found the opener. Substitute winger Joel Barcenas failed to deliver on the door step. Addles was able to get to the end line with Robinson defending, and his cross from the left evaded Halsti before going to Barcenas. Fortunately for United, the cross left Barcenas having to go for a heel-flick, and he could only make the slightest contact. The cross continued on past Mishu before rolling away harmlessly.
And just as it seemed like the game was headed to an inevitable 0-0 scoreline, D.C. struck through Aguilar. A quick spell of possession from United led to Coria feeding Farfan, who had his back to goal 35 yards out. The midfielder quickly went with a back heel that found Aguilar, who was able to split two defenders before slotting the ball past Lloyd from 16 yards for the lead.
Enrico Small had the final opportunity for Arabe just a minute later, but his effort from an United turnover sailed over the goal. From there, Arabe was reduced to some hopeful crosses that ended up running long and United saw out the four minutes of stoppage time without incident.
D.C. United return to action on Saturday, as they host the San Jose Earthquakes at RFK Stadium. The Black-and-Red then welcome Montego Bay on Tuesday for their second CCL group game.