Tonight, after more than three months, D.C. United is back playing competitive soccer with a visit to LD Alajuelense in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The Black-and-Red have ramped up their preseason with these two legs - and hopefully a few more CCL games - in mind. Their path to this point was easy: Four straight wins over a very disappointing Tauro FC and a decent but limited Waterhouse FC made Group 4 a cakewalk. Tonight's game on turf against a very proud Costa Rican powerhouse will be anything but.
Key Player: Bill Hamid
Let's not complicate things here. This is a road knockout game in the CCL; MLS teams have by and large met defeat in these situations. Alajuelense, meanwhile, appear to have become a more attack-minded team since last fall's group stage. That means that Hamid is my unsurprising pick as United's most important player tonight. We should certainly expect him to have to produce at least one spectacular save. In tough moments like this, it's hard to succeed without your best players being at their best. Hamid is arguably the best goalkeeper in the CCL, and United will need him to show it tonight.
Key question: Can United take advantage of Alajuelense's shaky mental state?
LDA is going through a rough two weeks. They've lost to their arch-rival Saprissa - who also jumped ahead of La Liga into first place as a result of that win - they've lost to a club near the bottom of the standings, and they've tied a team near the bottom of the standings. There are injured starters in doubt. Head coach Oscar Ramirez's already prickly relationship with the press has gotten worse.
As I wrote yesterday, this is a team teetering on the edge. On one hand, desperate teams are always tough to play. In terms of effort, we're going to see Alajuelense work extremely hard. They're going to send plenty of numbers forward. United is going to be severely tested defensively.
On the other hand, if United passes that test and LDA starts to get frustrated, this is a glorious opportunity to kill this quarterfinal tie off. Last night, Club America showed us how to get the job done against Saprissa: Survive their big push, deliver the gut punch, and then keep countering against a shell-shocked foe. Saprissa is stronger mentally right now than Alajuelense, and yet they fell 3-0 at their notoriously difficult home venue. United might not have Club America's attacking chops - this is a team that subbed off group stage co-leading scorer Martin Zuniga for Mexico national team star Oribe Peralta last night - but in 2014 this was one of MLS's most ruthless teams. If the defense holds up, this game could set up perfectly for the Black-and-Red.
Match date/time: Thursday 2/26, 7:00pm local, 8:00pm EST
Venue: Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto (Alajuela, Costa Rica)
TV: Fox Sports 2 (English), Univision Deportes (Spanish)
Online: FoxSoccer2Go (English), FoxSportsGo (English), Univision Deportes (Spanish)