As has happened all too often for MLS sides in the CONCACAF Champions League, D.C. United's preseason form was not good enough to compete with the region's elite, and that lack of sharpness and organization contributed heavily to an ugly 5-2 loss to LD Alajuelense. Jose Ortiz struck twice for the Costa Rican side, who also got an early goal from Ariel Rodriguez, a match-winning third from Johan Venegas, and a back-breaking 90th minute finish from Jonathan McDonald. United's goals came from Fabian Espindola - who turned in an inspired performance despite the result - and Steve Birnbaum.
As expected, La Liga put United to the test immediately following kickoff. A short corner kick caught United napping a bit, with a cross to the back post finding Jose Ortiz at the back post. Andrew Dykstra - starting for an injured Bill Hamid - made a potentially tricky save look easy. Ortiz nearly had another look within the same minute, but Nick DeLeon's attentive defending prevented a back post tap-in. Seconds later, Venegas beat Taylor Kemp to a header but sent the ball a yard wide of the far post.
Dykstra would come up big in the 12th minute on a 1v1 opportunity. Venegas ended up putting Armando Alonso in behind Kemp before Dykstra came off his line to block Alonso's poked attempt at a shot. However, Ben Olsen may look at an incident 50 yards upfield as the big problem: Chris Pontius failed to drop into DeLeon's spot after DeLeon pursued a loose ball into the middle, and Alajuelense's move upfield came from that empty space.
Alonso would get the better of Dykstra two minutes later. Dykstra misread the danger of what was a low-percentage ball over the top, charging out and colliding with Alonso just inside the penalty area. Referee Roberto Garcia correctly gave a penalty kick and booked Dykstra. Eventually, Ariel Rodriguez stepped up and - after a slow-motion run-up - froze Dykstra before powering his spot kick into the back of the net.
Alajuelense entered the game in need of a spark, and the early goal boosted their confidence. United, meanwhile, wasn't answering the bell. Porfirio Lopez got a free header after a free kick caused confusion in the area, but fortunately headed it close enough to Dykstra to give him a fairly routine save in the 18th minute.
The onslaught continued, and United would concede again in the 20th minute. As the ball came to him 45 yards from goal, Venegas looked up to see a 30 yard gap between Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum. 30 yard gaps between your center backs usually end poorly, and so it was tonight: Venegas one-timed a delicate pass into the space, and a wide-open Jose Ortiz dashed in alone to roll his shot past Dykstra, who had no chance.
United was being badly outplayed, but pulled a goal back completely against the flow of the game after 24 minutes. Following an offside call against Alajuelense, Dykstra thumped the ball long looking for Pontius. Pontius easily beat Lopez in the air, flicking the ball in behind the defense for Fabian Espindola. Dexter Lewis - like Dykstra, a backup GK - stayed on his line too long only to then come off his line just in time for Espindola to pop his header up over him and in to give United a potentially valuable away goal.
In a pattern that would repeat itself later, United couldn't hang onto an acceptable scoreline for even five minutes. McDonald chased down a 27th minute pass well out on the left and hooked in a harmless cross. However, Dykstra appeared focused on the presence of Venegas, and instead of a routine catch he managed to let the ball roll through his arms and to the ground. Venegas will never score an easier goal than this one, as he poked the ball into the back of the empty net.
United finally put together a spell of possession that eventually became a look at goal in the 31st minute. First, Espindola found DeLeon in a good spot to cross on the right, but the cross was a bit too hard for Chris Rolfe to do anything with it. The ball quickly found itself on Kemp's foot, and his pinpoint left-footed cross found Pontius dead center from six yards out. A header to either side or even above Lewis would have gone in at that range, but Pontius nodded the ball down at his feet, letting La Liga off the hook.
The visitors had a couple more good moments on either side of halftime - DeLeon's 39th minute run up the middle and a passing sequence in the 52nd minute that ended with an overhit Kemp cross among them - but the home side would add a fourth goal eight minutes into the second half. Following a turnover in central midfield, Ortiz found himself in a big gap between Boswell, Birnbaum, Perry Kitchen, and Davy Arnaud. No one closed him down, and Ortiz bagged his second of the night with a bullet into the lower corner from 19 yards.
Espindola was largely forced to become a one-man show in the attack, and he nearly scored a second goal in the 56th minute. He spun beautifully away from Lopez about 40 yards from goal and charged into the area ahead of both Lopez and left back Leonel Peralta. Espindola lashed a shot past Lewis, but the ball went just wide and into the outside netting.
The lack of mental speed United was showing defensively reared its ugly head again just before the hour mark, where an attack broke down in the LDA half. Alajuelense broke forward at speed and in numbers, while United simply had no one tracking back until seconds after the counter had crossed midfield. United could only breathe a sigh of relief as substitute Diego Calvo rolled his shot comfortably wide from a decent position.
Alajuelense seemed to tire a bit in the moments that followed, allowing United to mount a few attacks. However, several moves broke down at the top of the box for the Black-and-Red. A combination of skill and work rate saw DeLeon - probably the only United starting midfielder who can feel like he pulled his weight - win a corner, but Espindola's service was inches too high for Birnbaum.
A minute later, Miguel Aguilar - just on in his official competitive debut - caused chaos with a cross towards the penalty spot, but with three players from both sides around the ball it was World Cup defender Jhonny Acosta who reacted first, clearing with a bicycle kick. Aguilar's overall showing playing left midfield was a bright spot on an otherwise dismal night.
Kemp was caught ball-watching in the 82nd minute as United send numbers into the attack, but he made up for his mistake with a sprinting recovery that allowed him to poke the ball off of Ortiz just as he was about to shoot. It would be Ortiz's last contribution; Elias Palma would sub on for the striker two minutes later, and Oscar Ramirez would reorganize his team into a 541 to protect the lead.
Despite the additional center back, it would be United scoring next in the 89th minute. Aguilar did well to win a free kick along the left wing. Espindola's first service was cleared away, but at the second attempt he whipped in a perfect ball for Birnbaum, who soared onto the ball and met it with a ferocious header past Lewis. United's bench appeared overjoyed on the television feed, as they knew full well that a two-goal home win was far more likely than a three-goal triumph.
The fun times didn't even last a full minute as a thorough defensive catastrophe gave La Liga their cushion back almost immediately. Sean Franklin probably should have been able to prevent Calvo from crossing just before the ball rolled over the endline, but it still should have been cleared. Birnbaum seemed rushed, however, and only managed to send the ball to Osvaldo Rodriguz. The substitute pumped the ball back into the box for McDonald, and Birnbaum compounded his mistake by taking a poor angle to the ball. Kemp appeared frozen, meanwhile, depriving Birnbaum of much-needed help. McDonald - who had moments earlier feigned injury to an almost ludicrous degree, because this is CONCACAF - settled the ball and converted his sitter with minimal fuss.
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.