For the second straight year, D.C. United has landed what is relatively speaking a favorable CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal pairing. Queretaro is stumbling through the Liga MX season right now, picking up their only wins against the league's worst two teams. They struggle to create attacking opportunities, and are far more direct than Liga MX's reputation would indicate.
Nonetheless, the Mexican side will be favored because they're in season, they're at home - with a significant boost thanks to the altitude - and they've spent far more than United to assemble their squad. Victor Manuel Vucetich has won this competition before. United may not be up against it like Real Salt Lake is against Tigres, and they may not have to play at Estadio Azteca like Seattle will next week, but they're still in for a tough game.
Tough doesn't mean impossible though. Here's how the Black-and-Red can come back to RFK with a reasonable chance of advancing:
There are a ton of reasons for United to focus on avoiding mistakes and being clean on the ball. It's a road game against a team with a higher wage bill, for one. It's also a matter of being fit and sharp: Queretaro has played 7 games since the Liga MX winter break, which itself comes after a 17 game apertura round. United, having rebuilt their entire midfield, has had 4 weeks of preseason training and 5 preseason friendlies by comparison.
Perhaps most importantly, United will be playing at altitude. Queretaro is nearly 1,000 feet higher above sea level than Denver, where the Black-and-Red have largely struggled over the years. Being efficient with the ball is a must if United is going to have some gas in the tank in the last half-hour. It's no coincidence that MLS clubs over the years have seen their nightmares in Mexico mostly consist of being blitzed in the second half. Even the fittest teams can only chase the ball for so long.
United's best hopes for keeping the pace of the game manageable will involve reducing the number of cheap giveaways, but that's not the only thing that requires an efficient performance. If United gets a big scoring chance, it has to be converted. United lost in the CCL last year because they couldn't keep the ball out of the back of their net, but they also spurned some very good chances in the first leg against Alajuelense. That can't happen against a Queretaro team that isn't in the best form, and whose fans may turn on them if things aren't going to expectations.
Take advantage on set pieces
In watching Queretaro's games building up to tonight, one thing I noticed over and over again was that they're just not good at defending set pieces. They're a tough and determined group, but as a team they're a physically small group. They make some odd choices, too, like winger Angel Sepulveda man-marking Tigres striker Andre-Pierre Gignac.
They also have an erratic goalkeeper in Tiago Volpi. I said yesterday that I see Volpi as a big weakness, and set pieces are the main reason. Volpi comes off his line for balls he will never get to, and misses too many services that he should be catching or punching. Queretaro has been outplayed more often than not this season, but where they really seem the most vulnerable is when they give up free kicks or corners.
With United's size advantage - Queretaro has no one capable of marking Steve Birnbaum, or even Bobby Boswell - they should get some very good looks on set pieces. If the service is merely OK, there will still be some big opportunities in this game for the Black-and-Red.
Maintain some chill
This is CONCACAF, so United should know by now what to expect. The refereeing will not be good, or even bad in a predictable way. The fans will be hostile. Every CCL game comes with the caveat that if you lose your head, you will probably not like the outcome.
United needs to be especially aware of this against Queretaro, who get stuck in on every tackle. They might not be Liga MX's most talented team, but Vucetich has every player buying in on the idea that they need to be tough. There are no soft players in this lineup. Queretaro doesn't really go in for cheap shots so much as they just go hard for everything.
What does that mean for United? They're going to have to shrug off flying, dangerous tackles. They're going to get caught with studs, or clipped after they've already passed the ball. Most likely, they can't give it back in kind without risking cards. That's just life in the CCL, and complaining about it to the officials will probably make things worse.
MLS teams have struggled with this over the years, and for United to get the kind of result they want out of this game they'll need to learn from that history. Stoically enduring the hard tackles will be a bit unnerving for Queretaro, who seem to expect their hard-edged approach to bother their opponents.
Pay attention to the fullbacks
Queretaro is a pretty direct team, and their lack of the kind of creative skill in central positions that is typical of Liga MX teams forces them wide on a regular basis. This probably sounds familiar to United fans who watched last season, where Sean Franklin and Taylor Kemp ended up being fairly significant sources of key passes. It's a similar situation with los Gallos Blancos, who will be relying on George Corral and Jonathan Bornstein to create some scoring chances by firing in crosses from deep positions.
The good news here is that United should have no trouble winning the aerial duels. Queretaro's only tall striker, Luis Madrigal, has just 2 appearances and 40 minutes played in their 7 league games thus far. If United keeps the service from Corral and Bornstein predictable, they should be forcing a lot of easily defended crosses that Birnbaum and Boswell can head clear.
Going the other way, Bornstein seems to be regularly targeted by opposing coaches in the Mexican league. Tigres, even with Mexico international Javier Aquino on the field, made an effort to feed right winger Jurgen Damm. Cruz Azul did something similar, moving Joffre Guerron out to a right wing role specifically to pick on the former USMNT regular.
United should follow their lead. Corral is a smart defender, and next to him is Juan Forlin (Queretaro's smartest center back). On the other side, if you escape Bornstein you'll see the attention of the reckless, impulsive Miguel Martinez. Given Martinez's tendency to dive in (see above) and give up fouls (see further above), fast players like Patrick Nyarko and Luciano Acosta could find this part of the field to be a very good place to attack.