Odds look slim for Houston and D.C. to progress

April 3, 2008
CarlisleBy Jeff Carlisle
(Archive)

For years, Major League Soccer has been eager to achieve success on the international stage, and progress in the CONCACAF Champions Cup has proved to be a valuable measuring stick. Yet ever since the tournament went to a home-and-away format in 2002, no MLS side has reached the final. That looked set to change in 2008, when D.C. United and the Houston Dynamo reached the semifinal round. But with the first leg of the semis now in the books, that goal seems as distant as ever.

APHouston's Brian Ching, left, was thwarted on several occasions by Saprissa.

Houston could only muster a disappointing 0-0 tie at home against Costa Rican champions Saprissa, while United fell 2-0 in the rarefied air of Pachuca's Estadio Hidalgo. And now it seems likely the league's quest for continental supremacy will have to wait until the newly minted CONCACAF Champions League begins play this fall.

For the Dynamo, the disappointment will run deep on a couple of levels. For much of the match, they laid siege to the Saprissa goal, with the visitors often packing nine and sometimes 10 players behind the ball. Yet despite such a defensive approach by the Costa Ricans, Houston carved out enough clear openings to win the match by at least two goals, only to be let down by some poor finishing from forwards Brian Ching and Franco Caraccio.

Of course, this counts as something of a good news/bad news scenario for the Dynamo. The fact that at least four wide-open chances were missed by Ching and Caraccio will be painful, but the duo showed signs of establishing some chemistry, offering Houston fans some hope that Caraccio is the answer to the team's gaping hole at forward.

Given the hostile reception that awaits Houston next week at the Ricardo Saprissa Stadium, the fact that the "Purple Monster" was so vulnerable on Wednesday will stick in the Dynamo's collective craw for weeks. Saprissa was without suspended midfielder Walter Centeno as well as injured forward Alejandro Alpizar. Throw in the invisible performance by midfielder Celso Borges, and it's a wonder that the cup tie wasn't settled in the first leg.

Granted, the Dynamo had their own list of walking wounded, and they can only hope that players like Craig Waibel, Stuart Holden, and Brian Mullan recover sufficiently to give head coach Dominic Kinnear a bit more depth to work with in the return leg.

But even with those players, the odds are long that Houston will be able to pull off a win Wednesday. Historically, MLS sides are 1-7-0 on Costa Rican soil, with Saprissa accounting for three of those defeats. And the only team to have won in Costa Rica did so under bizarre circumstances. In the 2003 CCC, the New England Revolution opted to play both legs on the road against Alajuelense. Trailing 4-0 from the first leg, the Revs nearly pulled off a miracle, jetting out to a 3-0 lead in the second match before a Rolando Fonseca goal made the cup tie safe for the home side. Houston won't need to be that prolific in front of goal next week, just sharper than it was on Wednesday.

CONCACAF Champions Cup
April 1
Pachuca vs. D.C. United
Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico
10 p.m. ET

April 2
Houston vs. Deportivo Saprissa
Robertson Stadium, Houston
9 p.m. ET

April 9
D.C. United vs. Pachuca
RFK Stadium, Washington
7:30 p.m. ET

Deportivo Saprissa vs. Houston
San Jose, Costa Rica
TBD

As for United, their inability to possess the ball for any considerable length of time was their undoing. In particular, the woeful hold-up play of the United forwards made it incredibly difficult to keep the ball away from Pachuca's impressive array of attacking players.

That said, the decision making of the United midfield also left something to be desired. Too often the visitors went for the killer pass when what they really needed was someone to put their foot on the ball and milk some clock. There were times when Marcelo Gallardo and Fred did slow things down and United were able to catch their collective breath, which takes some doing when you're playing at almost 8,000 feet above sea level. But it didn't happen often enough, and the toll it took on the visitors was evident as the game progressed.

For the first half-hour, United looked reasonably comfortable. But with each passing minute, Pachuca players like Christian Giménez and Jaime Correa imposed more of their will, leaving United to spend more and more time chasing. The middle half-hour of the match saw the visitors' grip on the game become more tenuous, and the final 30 minutes witnessed two deserved Pachuca goals sandwiched around a brief United flurry. The final whistle couldn't come soon enough for a clearly fatigued United side.

Some will place considerable blame on United goalkeeper Zach Wells, who in the 63rd minute was caught cheating off his line by Pachuca's Luis Montes, leaving him in no position to parry the Mexican's blast from deep on the left wing. While it's true that Wells should have done better on the play, the goal was more a product of United's fatigue and Pachuca's relentless pressure.

Is a stellar comeback within the realm of possibility? Unlikely, but not impossible. With United perhaps getting Jamie Moreno back, the Black and Red's attack could get a boost. Newcomers like Gallardo will also have another game under their belts, and with it, a bit more familiarity with their teammates. That could lead to the kind of possession that was so elusive on Tuesday. The back line will also need to do a better job of tracking Giménez, who along with Montes did plenty to torment United. If United are successful in these endeavors, then they may yet win some international silverware for themselves, and their league.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com