This offseason, D.C. United made all the right noises about making a real push to make history for MLS by winning the CONCACAF Champions League. There was virtually no talk about the league opener against Montreal; everything was about LD Alajuelense and the first leg in Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, said first leg was an unmitigated disaster. United never gained control of the game's tempo, several veterans with reputations for being dependable were either outright poor or simply uninvolved, and the Black-and-Red wasted a couple big chances en route to a 5-2 debacle. Even when the fates threw United a rope in the form of Steve Birnbaum's 89th minute goal, the response from the capital club was to throw it away within a minute.
Tonight is the chance to set things right. It's going to take a hell of an effort, though. Alajuelense may not look like a good defensive team, but their ability to attack with speed seemed potent enough that the lowest-scoring victory that would see United through - that's 3-0 thanks to the away goals rule - might be asking for too much. Soccer teams win 3-0 or 4-1 regularly enough that this isn't completely unthinkable. The issue is that they usually don't do so when the other team knows that losing 2-0 is good enough.
Still, if Montreal can knock out Pachuca on a 94th minute goal by the 45th pick in this year's Superdraft, then United is capable of producing some magic. If we see United score and keep a clean sheet in the first half, the pressure is going to mount on Alajuelense's collective psyche, which seems more than a little fragile. It's a long shot, no doubt, but stranger things have happened.
Key Player: Fabian Espindola
Espindola played like a man possessed in the first leg. It wasn't just that he scored United's first and got the sole assist on the second; it was the endless running, the prompting of his teammates, and the often lonely nature of his play when one considers the lack of support he got. United looked dangerous despite Espindola only getting a few bursts from Nick DeLeon and one or two runs from Chris Pontius in the way of help. His one-man show really should have put us in a good spot to advance, but the defense let him down.
In tonight's second leg, we need - at a minimum - a repeat performance. Espindola looked inspired last week while most of his teammates looked overawed by the occasion. Even assuming that Chris Rolfe returns to normal and that someone in central midfield involves themselves in attacking and that Pontius ups his game, the only realistic chance United has of producing three or four goals is going to involve Espindola being brilliant for 90 minutes.
I'd also add that I think Espindola needs to be combative in this one without going over the line. If Alajuelense players start reacting emotionally to him, or picking up yellow cards, United's job gets easier. If Espindola gets himself in trouble with the referee, though, we've got a problem on our hands. United can't afford to see him sent off, even if he gets an Alajuelense player thrown out in the process.
Key question: Can United defend well enough to get the job done?
This one's counter-intuitive. Why should a team in need of a three-goal win worry about keeping goals out? Well, first of all, United fans should worry about the defense in general after watching a nightmarish performance down in Costa Rica. For this season to be a success, that has to be United's rock bottom in terms of defending as a team (and for several players, defending as an individual). This is my worry: I think Alajuelense can be hit for three goals. I didn't see anything about them that makes me think they're going to hold this game to a 0-0 draw.
However, with the numbers United will send forward in search of a goal and the fact that LDA only seems to know how to attack, the Black-and-Red will need to put in a great defensive performance. Otherwise, needing three goals becomes needing four or five, and the odds are long enough as is. La Liga boss Oscar Ramirez has already said he plans to try to kill the game with an early goal, so anything remotely similar to the defending we saw in Alajuela will probably spell doom. The back four is going to have to be great, and Bill Hamid is going to have to be Bill friggin' Hamid.
Match date/time: Wednesday 3/4, 8:00pm EST
Venue: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
TV: Fox Sports 2 (English)
Online: FoxSoccer2Go (English), FoxSportsGo (English), Univision Deportes (Spanish), Repretel En Vivo (Spanish)