Dynamo's hopes rest on an ailing Ching
When it comes to the CONCACAF Champions Cup, MLS clubs have usually been history rather than made history. Yet if both D.C. United and the Houston Dynamo can prevail in their CONCACAF Champions Cup matches on Thursday, an important milestone will be reached for both the clubs and the league.
That's because it will mark the first time since 2000 that two MLS teams will have progressed to the semifinals of the CCC. And ever since 2002, when the tournament adopted a two-legged format for each series, America's league hasn't come close to repeating that achievement.
That could change this time. Of the two MLS teams, United has by far the more straightforward path, given the 4-1 aggregate lead they will carry into the second leg against Honduran side Olimpia. While conceding four goals at home seems highly unlikely, head coach Tom Soehn is taking nothing for granted. Although Olimpia are in some turmoil after head coach Nahun Espinoza reportedly tendered his resignation following the first leg, a request which was rejected by management, Soehn is no less wary.
"Any time there is controversy in that respect, teams are going to come out and fight and battle for their coach," said Soehn. "I am expecting it to be tough like I expected it to be there. But I don't think we're going to change a whole lot. Our intentions are to play our game and let [Olimpia] worry about our strengths."
As for the Dynamo, they not only face a one-goal deficit heading into their second leg against reigning Central American champions Puntarenas, but their side is surprisingly dinged up heading into the contest. Goalkeeper Pat Onstad is unavailable due to a right calf injury, and reserve midfielder Stuart Holden is out with an ailing left hamstring. The likes of Brian Ching and Brad Davis are also hobbled, with Ching bothered by a tender right knee while Davis has been nursing a sore right hamstring. Despite his team's ailments, head coach Dominic Kinnear is eager to see his side make amends.
"When you lose, and then you're playing the same team again, a week is too much time," said Kinnear. "You want to get back at them again."
Kinnear added that one possible break in Houston's favor is that visa trouble may prevent Puntarenas midfielders Kevin Sancho and Leonardo Ocamica from making the trip. Given the bizarre incidents that have already taken place in the series, such an occurrence almost seems par for the course.
But all that matters to the Dynamo as well as D.C. United is getting the required result on Thursday. To that end, here are some items to look for in both contests.
Five looming questions
1. Can the Dynamo stage another comeback?
During last year's MLS playoffs, Houston made a habit of coming from behind, whether the format was a two-legged affair or a one-game playoff. This time, the task will be no less difficult. Puntarenas has plenty of experience on its back line and the Dynamo will face the additional challenge of playing the match in College Station, Texas, negating some of their homefield advantage.
2. How well will the United midfield manage the game?
Given their three-goal lead, the Black-and-Red find themselves in a unique position, that of needing just to dictate the pace of the game in order to advance. United's ability to achieve that goal will largely come down to their midfield, which played well enough in the first leg, but will need to raise its level of play in order to extinguish Olimpia's faint hopes.
3. Can the Dynamo's Zach Wells deliver another strong performance?
If the Dynamo end up prevailing in this series, much of the credit will be placed at the feet -- and hands -- of Wells, who in relief of the injured Onstad, delivered several top-notch saves that kept the first leg close. With the Dynamo looking to do more attacking in the second leg, chances are that Wells will be called upon to help thwart any Puntarenas counterattacks.
4. Will Luciano Emilio stick it to his former club again?
When he scored the game-winning goal in the first leg, the Brazilian looked like a pickpocket making a getaway, so subdued was his celebration. Chances are that if Emilio scores again, he'll be a bit more expressive, and with the Lions throwing everything into attack, he should get his chances.
5. Will Brian Ching recover in time?
The Dynamo badly missed Ching's hold-up play in the first leg, which would have allowed Houston to keep the ball more. The Hawaiian's aerial ability was also needed, and with his team needing just one goal to draw level, Ching's ability on set pieces would be a welcome addition. Word out of Houston is that Ching's participation will be a game-time decision, but even if he plays just a substitute's role, that could provide the Dynamo with the boost they need.
Five players to watch
1. Michael Barrantes, M, Puntarenas
Suspended for the first leg due to a red card received in the UNCAF Club Championship final, the Costa Rican international returns ready to anchor Puntarenas' midfield in a holding role. Given that "Las Naranjas" will be trying to maintain a one-goal lead, Barrantes' ability to break up attacks could be the key to Puntarenas advancing.
2. Craig Waibel, D, Houston
With Eddie Robinson suspended, the task of marking up in the middle will likely fall to Waibel, with Kelly Gray assuming the right back spot. Waibel's imposing frame has long made him better suited to the middle than his normal right back position, and he's also a threat to score on set pieces, as his six goals last year in MLS proved.
3. Bobby Boswell, D, D.C. United
As electric as United's attack was down in Tegucigalpa, it was the play of Boswell that allowed the Black-and-Red to ride out some nervous moments. With a three-goal lead heading into the second leg, it will be up to the likes of the current U.S. international to make sure that United's defense stays sharp.
4. Wilson Palacios, M, Olimpia
Despite getting hammered in the first leg, Olimpia did have some dangerous moments in attack, and it was Palacios who was often in the thick of it. There were also moments when the Lions relied a bit too much on their one-on-one skill, and if they have any hope of getting back into this series, Palacios will need to keep the ball moving rather than relying on solo runs.
5. Brad Davis, M, Houston
Davis was completely anonymous during the first leg, barely touching the ball. A nagging hamstring injury was partially to blame, but Houston will need its resident dead-ball specialist to raise his game several notches if it is to have any chance of reversing the result from the first leg.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.