The CONCACAF Champions League has always been a tournament full of strange events. Normally most of these involve acrimonious games with violent tackles and horrendous officiating, but D.C. United's path through this edition is a different sort of strange tale. Despite sending just fourteen players - including MLS pool goalkeeper Daniel Withrow, who briefly flirted with entering as a field player in the final minutes - to Panama, the Black-and-Red made it four wins from four CCL games with a 1-0 victory over Tauro FC. Conor Shanosky's fortuitous 24th minute header made all the difference for the visitors.
Much of the first half was played at a snail's pace. That's not completely unheard of in Panama, where the heat and humidity make playing high-octane soccer for a sustained period more or less impossible. It still makes for a less than thrilling spectacle, however, and the opening 20 minutes produced only one intriguing spell: Alcides de los Rios fired over from the penalty spot after a cross from Tauro's right flank. From the ensuing goal kick, United nearly saw Michael Seaton in on goal after a slip from center back Jesus Araya, but keeper Kevin Melgar arrived in time to prevent a shot.
The game was begging for a goal to spice things up, and it would come via a huge slice of luck. Lewis Neal's 24th minute free kick was aimed towards Shanosky, but it ran just a bit too long for the Homegrown defender. However, Reinel Herrera's attempted clearing header flew straight into Shanosky's face. The unintended shot on goal caught Melgar on the other side of the frame, however, and left him with no chance to prevent Shanosky's first-ever competitive goal for United.
It still took another ten minutes for the game to gain steam. A splendid crossfield ball from de los Rios picked out Vidal Gonzalez - who was involved in most of Tauro's good attacks on the night - running in behind makeshift left back Alex Caskey. Unfortunately for Tauro, Gonzalez's second touch failed him, and in the end his rushed shot flew well over the goal.
Tauro had their best spell of the game as the first half closed. A powerful 37th minute shot hit Willis in the chest, forcing him to scramble to cover up the rebound under duress. A half-cleared 42nd minute corner fell to midfielder Christian Lopez, who after a couple of touches flashed a shot barely a foot on the wrong side of the far post. Shanosky also put Willis under some pressure just before halftime, as his backward header forced everyone's favorite backup GK to throw himself to the ground and snare the ball at full stretch.
After halftime, both teams created their first look fairly quickly. A 50/50 ball skewed across the top of United's area in the 49th minute, finding Gonzalez. His shot deflected on the way in, and it may have made a big difference; Ismael Diaz was lurking for what would have been a tap-in.
Two minutes later, Melgar failed to take a proper angle coming out for a long ball, allowing David Estrada to get to it first. Estrada kept the ball in play and turned back towards goal, but his chipped attempt to find Collin Martin at the back post was too weak and Melgar gratefully claimed it.
United thought they had a 2-0 lead in the 56th minute. A cross from Alex Caskey on the right wing found Lewis Neal at the back post. Neal - captaining the side for the night - put an acrobatic shot on goal that Melgar could only get a palm to. Martin tapped the ball over the line, but was flagged offside. Replays appeared to indicate that the call was correct, as Martin's right foot was past the final Tauro field player as Neal shot.
Martin was at it again in the 61st minute, carrying the ball almost all the way across the field on a diagonal dribbling run. Finally entering the box on the right, Martin rounded the over-aggressive Melgar only to see his shot attempt blocked by the knee of Araya. Had he taken a look before shooting, Martin would have likely seen Seaton in a promising spot. Moments later, substitute Chris Korb's cross appeared overhit, but Kyle Porter's long-range header still forced Melgar into another save.
United's best spell of the match was capped off a few minutes later as Seaton, who had been caught running through the Tauro back four early several times, broke the offside trap chasing a ball over the top. His touch let him down a bit, however, and under pressure from the retreating Tauro defense he ended up blasting a falling shot off a Tauro defender from the left side of the box.
Tauro's attempt at a comeback was sparked by a well-worked 72nd minute attacking move was badly wasted by substitute Alejandro Velez. A defensive midfielder by trade, Velez found himself in a great shooting position but never squared his hips to goal, sending what should have been a dangerous shot about six yards wide.
The home team was turning up the pressure, as Shanosky was well-positioned to clear the ball away before superbly-named substitute Ervin Zorilla could finish Herrera's 75th minute through ball, and Samuel Inkoom's attempt to block a cross nearly became an own goal three minutes after that.
United's good luck continued as Velez hit the crossbar in the 82nd minute. Kofi Opare was harshly booked for what was clearly an accidental handball 23 yards from goal, and the ensuing free kick saw Tauro use a rehearsed routine to create a gap in United's wall. Velez crushed his shot through the hole and had Willis beaten, but the effort clipped the bar rather than leveling the scores.
Willis would come up with his biggest save of the night deep into stoppage time. Fernando Mena's cross from the endline picked out Diaz at the near post for a sharp header, but Willis was able to fling himself to his right and make the stop. Moments later, Mena pumped the ball back into the six-yard box, but Willis was alert and grabbed it before it fell to the lurking duo of Herrera and Velez.
With the win, United finished Group 4 with a perfect 4-0-0 record, something only one other MLS team - the 2012 Seattle Sounders - has ever managed. While the seeding possibilities still have to shake out with six more games to be played, United can finish no lower than 4th, which means they will host the second leg of their quarterfinal this coming spring.