In order to get acclimated to the warm weather in Costa Rica, D.C. United spent almost three weeks in Florida and Texas. Unfortunately, not only did things become pear-shaped for them physically as the game went on, the more disappointing part is mentally the game was lost far before the body gave in, some by people who had experienced these circumstances before, and the result was a 5-2 loss to L.D. Alajuelense in the first leg of CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals play.
Our words (Chest Rockwell): "United will need a miraculous turnaround in the second leg, which is Wednesday night at RFK Stadium. Even if the Black-and-Red were the kind of team given towards running up the score, the team defensive performance tonight indicates that it will take four or even five goals just to send the match into extra time."
Steven Goff (Washington Post): "The Costa Rican club toyed with the rusty MLS visitors Thursday night, registering a 5-2 victory in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals at Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto in Alajuela. United will need to win 3-0 or 4-1 next Wednesday at RFK Stadium to win the two-game encounter on the away-goal tiebreaker."
Pablo Maurer (MLS Soccer): ""This was a real game," D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen told the media in attendance after the match. "We took too long to get into what was a very physical game against a good group. It’s pretty simple. This was our first real game in a while and it just took us too long [to get up to speed] so we had to spend the rest of the time out there chasing the game...Give them a lot of credit – they came at us and gave us a lot of difficulty and we just didn’t handle it well. I think we did a much better job of handling the game at the end of the first half and into the second half, getting a hold of it, getting up to speed. Just costly mistakes. Very soft goals."
Dave Johnson (CSN Washington): "Before the game head Coach Ben Olsen’s keys included a good start to take the crowd out of the game. Olsen hoped his team would slow the game down and stay compact to prevent the game from opening up and becoming a back and forth affair on a field with bouncy turf...That was the plan, but instead United trailed 2-0 after only 22 minutes of play including conceding one goal on a penalty kick. Starting goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who has battled back and shoulder ailments, was sidelined with an unspecified injury and replaced by Andrew Dykstra in the first eleven...For Dykstra it was his first action since his 2014 campaign, which included appearances in four league matches, was ended by an Achilles tendon injury. To be sure Dykstra looked rusty, but as a team United looked very much like a squad in preseason and not in a match with so much on the line."
Jairo Arrieta (via La Nacion & Google Trans:) "We made very childish mistakes, we can not give you that advantage over the opponent. They had the options and advantage. When we were 2-1 we could address the different party, but our goalkeeper made a mistake."
Alajuelense coach Oscar Ramirez (via La Nacion & Google Trans): ""At this moment we have the advantage, but could be better, this must be sentenced. We were strong, but there is a team that had its qualities." he added.
D.C. United's first foray into international club play in almost a decade was one ripe of errors. Andrew Dykstra bore the brunt of those errors, starting from his foul on Armando Alonso which gave referee Roberto Garcia little choice but to award a penalty kick that Ariel Rodriguez scored and moving on to fumbling a ball in his area which Johan Venegas slammed home, a goal than came minutes after Fabian Espindola had scored to bring the match to 2-1.
While it easy and even convenient to criticize Dykstra, at last check none of the eight players in front of him were making their first start in nine months following a ruptured Achilles injury. Poor positioning from Steve Birnbaum (only recently returning to action from a sprained MCL suffered while at the United States Men's National Camp) and Bobby Boswell led to the second Alajuelense goal, and later errors by Birnbaum and Sean Franklin led to Jonathan McDonald's goal, the final one from the Rojinegros on the night.
The Last Word:
One would assume that with one team in preseason form and another who just came off playing an archrival days before, the artificial turf at Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto would naturally favor an Alajuelense side that would come out with guns blazing, and this was easily noticeable. However, for a team that almost prides themselves on being a mix of Major League Soccer castoffs from other squads combined with a clever mix of young players, the veterans who have experienced past jaunts to Central America in February and March showed some of this uncertainty, while those who had not been exposed to it before seemed to be awestruck. Fortune favored malaise, one that is not new within D.C. United and its coach in the early stages of this season, or most.
Granted, in MLS it is where you finish more than how you start, and that the ebbs and flows over the course of a season are almost too many to count. And the extension of preseason (both in duration and intensity) was an encouraging sign. That said, Olsen, Boswell, Franklin, Espindola, Arrieta and Davy Arnaud all have prior playing experience in the CCL. Extend things out to soon-to-be-player Alexander Robinson, and you perhaps have some recent intelligence about playing Alajuelense and Costa Rican soccer in general. Little of this experience was on display as the collective performance of the aforementioned five players was about as on par with Robinson, and he was in the stands this night. When you are 3-7-3 in competitive matches before April 1 as Coach Ben Olsen is, and you are about to have the eyes of more than just D.C.'s fans on you, you should expect better from those who have been there before, up to and including yourself.
So now the next (or last for a bit, depending on CBA talks) game for D.C. United is the return leg with Alajuelense at RFK Wednesday night. The good news is, the way that Alajuelense looked defensively at times on Thursday, they could be had for some goals. And D.C. United has scored three goals in the past so in the immortal words of Rocco Lampone, difficult, not impossible. But as we've mentioned before, if D.C. United is going to score three recently, Luis Silva is generally the guy to have to figure into such things. But with Silva only returning to training 10 days ago, should he be heavily relied upon to help create three goals without his hamstring doing him in? Will the defense regroup and find the form that allowed them to concede the fewest goals in MLS last year?