A year after relying on some of the club's more experienced players to advance out of the CONCACAF Champions League group stage -- recall Fabian Espindola's brace in Jamiaca against Waterhouse FC -- D.C. United is on the verge of advancing again, with an entirely different set up.
Last year manager Ben Olsen mixed in several reserves among stronger lineups, as United cruised to qualification in the first three games. This season, however, with league games the weekend before and the weekend after each of the four group stage games, Olsen has elected to go with more of a mixed team. Fringe starters, reserves, and several players who generally aren't part of a normal MLS matchday 18 have all featured in CCL games this time around.
The results have been the same as last year, as United only requires a point tomorrow against Arabe Unido at home to advance to next spring's knockout stage.
"I think [this group] gets it. I think they really relish in the opportunity to play meaningful games, in a tournament that means a lot to this club.," Olsen told reporters on Monday. "In a season where some of these guys aren't getting the minutes they want, this is a great chance to show that they belong in the squad on the weekend."
Several players who had stretches of regular starting nods this season, or who would challenge for a starting spot if completely healthy, have played their part in this Champions League campaign. Jairo Arrieta, Markus Halsti, Chris Pontius, and Michael Farfan all come to mind. But around them, Olsen has given opportunities to two rookies, a Homegrown Player, and Jared Jeffrey, who has seen his play time drastically dwindle since initially getting starts soon after his move to the Black-and-Red in the summer of 2013.
Miguel Aguilar has scored both the winning goals in the first two games, and along with fellow rookie, Luke Mishu has gone 90 minutes in both appearances. Academy product Jalen Robinson, in his second season after signing a deal in 2014, has played 180 minutes at right back (a position he has seen occasional time at down with the Richmond Kickers).
And Jeffrey, who made ten starts in that regretful 2013 season, has started both games, putting in shifts in the center midfield alongside Farfan and Halsti.
"It's huge for me. These are the games that I can focus on because I'm not in the rotation for MLS games," Jeffrey told B&RU. "It's good for me to get a rhythm, and to play games week in and week out for a month.
The impact of the decision to give them minutes in such games won't necessarily have immediately tangible effects. Playing in Champions League games won't directly translate to MLS minutes now, especially with Olsen shortening the roster with the playoffs right around the corner.
In the long term though, as more players are given opportunities to shine -- and prove they belong -- these minutes can become useful as players look to force their way into the regular best eleven.
Meanwhile, the presence of Kofi Opare, Steve Birnbaum, Andrew Dykstra, and Halsti in defense has given United some veteran experience in their first two Group H games. However, adding two relatively inexperienced outside backs to the equation could make the job of keeping goals out difficult.
That's just what United has done though, with Robinson on the right and Mishu at left back. Arabe Unido and Montego Bay have had chances in both games, but in both United has done well enough defensively to keep clean sheets.
"I'm on loan for most of the season, so I don't get a lot of opportunities with the first team. So when I do get a call up, like for Champions League, it's huge," Robinson said to B&RU. "It's an important stage as a young player. I have to take this minutes and do well with them. I can't just throw them away."
"Playing these Champions League games is a bit more mental. It's a different level [than Richmond] once you play these CONCACAF games, because it's all or nothing. I have a full season down in Richmond, so you can learn from your mistakes. Here, you have to learn on the fly."
Now with only a point needed against El Expreso Azul, Olsen is confident that this group can get the job done.
"We have faith that the group we are putting out there can get through this group. We think it's a valuable test for a lot of those guys."