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CCL win could help D.C. United down the stretch

The three points are nice, but the minutes for players coming back from injury are also big for the Black-and-Red.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

With D.C. United's CONCACAF Champions League journey starting in Panama on Wednesday, and an up and down league form in MLS play, Ben Olsen and acting manager (with Olsen suspended) Chad Ashton decided to go with a second line of players for the game against Arabe Unido.

Most of the regulars stayed back in D.C., with only Markus Halsti and Steve Birnbaum the only two starters who also started the game against New York City FC, it was a chance for United to give valuable playing time to a couple players in need of it.

The result was an injury free performance, with three points in the bag, thanks to Miguel Aguilar's late winner in a 1-0 victory.

"Great minutes for [Chris] Pontius, great minutes for Halsti and [Kofi Opare]. Our youngsters at the wide backs did well," Olsen said on Friday. "You name it, across the board, it's a great game for all of them to get minutes and find ways to win game. Going down there with the travel and the conditions, [the games] are never easy. And they found a way to get the result."

Halsti went the full 90 minutes against La furia colonense, playing the first 50 minutes in midfield, before moving to center back when Michael Farfan entered the game for a slightly injured Birnbaum. But it was only the 10th appearance that Halsti has made since moving to the Black-and-Red this winter, their only high profile acquisition in the winter months.

And while Halsti is somewhat frustrated with his current lack of conditioning, opportunities like those against Arabe Unido are the perfect solution to getting back into full fitness.

"It's been tough with injuries, and coming in with new tactics and new teammates. It hasn't gone like I have hoped," Halsti said to B&RU. "I have tried to find the best spots in the game, and I'm not really finding them, so it's frustrating to myself."

"I'm not really there yet, I'm not where I'd like to be [fitness-wise.] But that's normal when I haven't played that much."

In addition, Aguilar had a rare 90 minute appearance in just his seventh start of the season in all competitions, which culminated in his first professional goal. The goal was the result of a pass from Farfan, which allowed Aguilar to get in between two defenders before finishing off the play.

"I feel like some weight has been lifted off my back. I've always thought that scoring your first goal is the hardest thing," Aguilar told B&RU on Friday. "And once you get the first one, it opens up for more. I was excited that I got the first one out of the way, and it meant something for the team."

For Aguilar, despite seeing time in 20 different games this year, it was just the fourth time in MLS, US Open Cup, and CONCACAF Champions League play that he has gone a full 90 minutes. In between mostly late game cameos, he has also spent time in Virginia with the Richmond Kickers, gaining valuable time on the playing field.

"It's definitely a great learning experience. I haven't had a lot of 90 minute games, and it was good to see where I was physically, mentally, and technically," said Aguilar. "I'll look back on the game to see things I did well, and what I need to improve on, and just use it as a learning tool."

Against  the San Jose Earthquakes tomorrow, Olsen will likely return to his regular starters, the guys who have carried him through most of the season. But without Fabian Espindola, who continues to be out, and Chris Korb, who suffered a season ending ACL injury against NYCFC, Olsen will be forced into using a 25th different lineup in 27 MLS games this season.

And while Aguilar, Pontius, and Halsti will likely feature on the bench, knowing that they've seen time recently will mean that they're more likely to contribute positively off the bench when called up.

"I think we've been up and down, but we continue to find ways to be a good team. And that's one of the most important qualities you can have in a team," Olsen added. "I really like this group. We'be had trouble getting the same group on the field for a consistent period, and that's hampered us a little bit. It's not an excuse, we've still managed to get wins, and that's a credit to the guys."