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D.C. United in search of missing formula after second consecutive aggregate defeat

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Just like in the 2014 MLS playoffs, D.C. United's poor performance in the first leg against Alajuelense doomed them despite a win at RFK

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It's hard to imagine, but D.C. United's last two home games, played almost four months apart, ended in the exact same manner. As was the case in November against the New York Red Bulls in the MLS playoffs, United came into Wednesday night's CONCACAF Champions League second leg match against Alajuelense needing a decisive win. Having lost in Costa Rica 5-2, United needed to be at least three goals to the good against La Liga, similar to how United needed a three goal win to defeat the Red Bulls last fall.

Instead, they ended up with the same 2-1 scoreline each time.

As with last fall, the issue against Alajuelense came within the first 90 minutes of the tie. The second 90 were almost irrelevant because of how poorly the team performed in Central America.

"This is about the first leg," manager Ben Olsen told reporters after the game. "And we fouled that part up. This is the second time we've done it. And we need to learn that lesson. In a competition format like this, and such as the MLS playoffs, you got to show up both legs."

Just as against New York, United found a first half lead on Wednesday. Jairo Arrieta, forever a foe of Alajuelense for his time spent at Saprissa, scored in the last ten minutes of the first half to give the United faithful hope. And just as with the New York game in the playoffs, United conceded the second goal of the game, instead of scoring it themselves, all but ending their chances of advancing.

"To get out of that hole that you dig, you have to play a perfect game, and everything has to go your way," Olsen added.

It was clear after Johan Venegas's deflected goal in the 71st minute that everything wasn't going to go D.C.'s way on the night. Fabian Espindola added a consolation goal just before stoppage time, but that left the Black and Red needing to score twice more in stoppage time to advance. Just as in November, when Sean Franklin scored late on against the Red Bulls.

United players weren't oblivious to the fact that their last two home games have followed a similar pattern.

"It's two first legs in the past six months that we've started off bad," D.C. midfielder Chris Pontius said after the game. "And we are scrambling to come back in the second leg. We had them on the run here, and then they got the deflection goal. It's unfortunate, but we can't put ourselves down three goals going into [the second] leg."

There'll be time to dwell on how to fix the first leg issue now that United won't potentially face a similar situation until late October.

"I got a lot of time to think about it [preventing falling into a hole in the first leg]," Olsen said. "I think going through this process again hammers it home even more to the guys and myself. We need to make sure we are prepared to do what is necessary over 180 minutes, and not just 90."

For now, the focus quickly shifts to the Montreal Impact, who come to town on Saturday for each team's opening MLS game of the season. Like United, Montreal just went through two games in the Champions League quarterfinals. But as midfielder Chris Rolfe sees it, even though the team was eliminated, he sees his side being ahead of where most other teams will be for the first game of the regular season.

"We started to put some things together, and I'm very optimistic for us going into the season," Rolfe said after the game. "We had two competitive matches leading into our season. A lot of teams didn't get that opportunity, so that's only going to help us going forward."