D.C. United took to the field at Estadio Corregidora on Monday evening, less than 24 hours before their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal first leg tilt against Mexico's Queretaro FC. Having wrapped up their pre-season in Florida, United put in a quick session, hoping to be able to turn in the kind of performance on Tuesday that would set them up to advance to the semifinals for the first time since CONCACAF's continental club competition adopted the more daunting format of recent years
Having to face a Mexican side seven games into their league slate puts United, who have just five preseason games under their belt, at a distinct disadvantage to open their season. That's not the only obstacle for United, who will also have to get a result over a mile above sea level if they're to move past the disappointment of last year's CCL quarterfinals.
"We prepared as best as we could for this game. Is it enough? We will find out," United manager Ben Olsen told B&RU exclusively after practice. "It's not going to be perfect, but we have to find a way to get a result here to set us home back home. I think we have a group experienced enough to do it."
Another obstacle that the Black-and-Red face on Tuesday is getting key signing Luciano Acosta into a position where he can help contribute for the team. The diminutive midfielder, who is on loan from Boca Juniors, has had less than two weeks to try to integrate into the team.
That puts Olsen in a precarious position -- having to start a player who might best give his team a chance to get a result in Mexico, but also fielding a player who hasn't quite had a chance to assimilate to the team yet.
"Over the two weeks, every day he's getting better. It's going to take a little time. It doesn't always snap in, it doesn't always fit in in two weeks," said Olsen. "But the good thing is we've done a lot in a short amount of time to get him and the rest of the group up to speed as much as possible."
One thing that might actually favor D.C. tomorrow though is the experience they have playing in Champions League games. Most of the team that faltered last year against Alajuelense in the quarterfinals has returned, with former LA Galaxy midfielder Marcelo Sarvas added to bolster United's midfield.
"We are as prepared as we can be. We are still a new group, there are some new pieces, and there's still some figuring out we have to do, but we are all experienced in terms of big game experience," said United captain Bobby Boswell.
"It's a great opportunity for everyone here. It's the quarterfinals, you are six games from the Club World Cup," Sarvas said after Monday's practice. "We expect to come here and do our job, knowing it's a game of 180 minutes, and we have the second leg at home."
Last year, in the first leg against Alajuelense in Costa Rica, United quickly found themselves down two goals, and in a 3-1 hole within 30 minutes. On that night, United gave themselves life in the 89th minute only to concede a fifth goal in second half stoppage time. That gave La Liga an insurmountable lead, as United's 2-1 win a week later at RFK Stadium saw them eliminated 6-4 on aggregate.
Those kinds of games stick with players, and Olsen has preached starting strong, putting an emphasis on getting to the 30 minute mark without conceding a goal. Still, there is only so many kinks that can be worked out in preseason. Meaningful games matter when it comes to building fitness, getting acclimatized to new teammates, and to simply being sharp as individuals and as a team.
With all that in mind, United will hope to get a result tonight against a Queretaro team that has thus far struggled this season in Liga MX. Los Gallos Blancos are merely 2W-1D-4L on the season, and there are signs that this may be the most favorable draw United could have ended up with.
"It's all about how quickly we can get adapted. It's about the performance," Boswell said. "Just because we haven't had a lot of experience under our belts with each other doesn't mean we can't go out and put together a solid performance. That's our expectation."
Despite all of the obstacles that they must overcome, there will be no excuses coming from Olsen and company. A positive result is the requirement from the coaching staff as well as the players. Olsen said as much, telling B&RU "There will be no excuses tomorrow. We have to go and get the job done. It's not going to be perfect, but you have to find a way."