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Friday, March 2, 2007
MLS earns some respect in Champions Cup

Jeff Carlisle, ESPNsoccernet

Since its inception, MLS has been a league that has found respect -- especially the international variety -- hard to come by. But following Thursday night's victories by D.C. United and the Houston Dynamo in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, MLS will rightfully feel a bit prouder of its global pedigree. For the first time since the CCC reverted to a two-legged format in 2002, MLS can boast of having two teams in the semifinals.

United disposed of CD Olimpia 3-2 to win 7-3 on aggregate, while Houston had to sweat a bit more for its victory, defeating Costa Rican side Puntarenas 2-0 to claim a 2-1 aggregate triumph. It marked the first time an MLS club prevailed over Costa Rican opposition in a home-and-away series.

Both sides will face Mexican teams in the semifinal round, with United taking on Chivas de Guadalajara and Houston facing Pachuca, almost making the newly created SuperLiga tournament (which will pit MLS teams against Mexican teams this summer) seem redundant.

The pride at such an accomplishment will no doubt be reflected on the faces of United head coach Tom Soehn and his counterpart in Houston, Dominic Kinnear. But both coaches also will be wondering if their victories came at too high a price.

For United, the sight of reigning Goalkeeper of the Year Troy Perkins hobbling off with an injured right thigh had to make Soehn ill, especially given the 4-1 advantage that the Black-and-Red carried into the second leg. I'm sure there is a tiny corner of Soehn's mind that is wondering why he didn't give backup keeper Jay Nolly a start. Kinnear also will rue an injury to All-Star midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, who was helped off the field clutching a tender left hamstring with 15 minutes to go.

But there are some things a coach can't prepare for, and since there are four weeks left until the start of the season, both Perkins and De Rosario should have ample time to heal, which will leave both coaches to revel in what was good about their teams on Thursday night.

For Soehn, that will focus mostly on forward Luciano Emilio, a new arrival who tormented his former club once again with two goals that were as notable for their timing as for their skill.

With a three-goal lead entering the match, finding the requisite killer instinct was going to be a challenge for United, and in the 30th minute, that fact was driven home. A careless sequence of plays by defender Bryan Namoff resulted in a penalty that was converted by Olimpia's Hendry Thomas, and as a result, a match that was thought to be a formality began to take on a bit more urgency.

Enter Emilio. In the first leg, it was the Brazilian's sublime back heel just before halftime that gave United a 2-1 lead and dealt their hosts a psychological blow from which they never recovered. In the second leg, Emilio's 37th-minute goal was a bit more conventional but no less timely. It allowed United to catch its breath and regain the belief that there would be no miracle comeback for its opponent on this night. And when Emilio scored again with six minutes to go to seal the win, it was the cherry on top of the sundae.

Granted, the downside to all of this is that Emilio's performance in the CCC has served as a warning shot across the bow of every team in MLS, especially United's Eastern Conference brethren. There will be no sneaking up on anybody, not that Emilio's lethal combination of strength, ball control and finishing would have stayed secret for long. But I'm sure Soehn would have preferred to keep his newest signing under wraps for a bit longer.

As for the Dynamo, they have long been a known quantity. Their style, formation and lineup can be predicted with an ease that would make the most casual fan look like Nostradamus. That doesn't make Houston any easier to stop, and Thursday showed that the resiliency that marked the team's journey to last year's MLS Cup hasn't gone away.

Much like last season, Houston had a laundry list of excuses: a suspended Eddie Robinson, an injured Pat Onstad, the league's awful history against Costa Rican clubs. There was also the stinker of a game turned in by De Rosario, who reverted to his tendency of trying to do too much. Yet the Dynamo managed to prevail, again.

With his 27th-minute strike, Paul Dalglish continued last year's habit of popping up for big goals, while goalkeeper Zach Wells and defender Kelly Gray battled for the role of unlikely hero. Wells came up with several huge stops, and his 51st-minute save from Jose Macotelo's fierce drive was the best of the bunch. But his heroics were edged out by Gray, who pounced on a rebound from a Brian Ching header to net the game-winner with 16 minutes to go.

For Gray, the goal could act as his official "Get Out of Jail Free" card. Blessed with immense physical tools, the San Jose native began 2006 as the starting right back, but some lapses in concentration and an odd reluctance to get nasty saw him lose his spot to Craig Waibel. Gray showed no such hesitation against Puntarenas, putting in some robust challenges that no doubt brought a smile to Kinnear's face, especially given referee Benito Archundia's odd reluctance to punish either team for anything short of assault. At the least, Gray's performance has put him in the mix to play a significant role in the Bataan Death March-like season that awaits the Dynamo.

Next up on that journey are the semifinals, where Houston will join United, and where the prospect of gaining more respect -- or losing it -- awaits. The Black-and-Red found themselves in a similar situation two years ago when they faced off in the semifinals against Mexican side Pumas. A 5-0 humiliation in the away leg left D.C., and MLS, back where it started from on the respect meter. But if both United and the Dynamo can push through to the final, that gauge will be kicked up a few notches higher.

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


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