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Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Odds looked stacked against D.C. and Houston

Jeff Carlisle

Based on the first-leg results in last week's CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinals, one would assume that of the two MLS teams taking part, the Houston Dynamo are more likely to advance than D.C. United. The Dynamo, while still facing a daunting away trip to Costa Rican titleholders Saprissa, could at least take comfort in the fact that their series is even. United meanwhile, faces a home date with Mexican side Pachuca trailing by two goals.

Of course, this is like being forced to climb K2 as opposed to Everest. But following their respective MLS fixtures last weekend, the Dynamo's already slim chance for advancement became anorexic, while United could be more optimistic.

Houston's collective head was still up following its dramatic 3-3 tie with in-state rival FC Dallas on Sunday, one that saw Dynamo rookie midfielder Geoff Cameron net the equalizer seconds into stoppage time. But the reigning MLS champs paid for the result in blood. Not only did the Dynamo expend considerable energy to get back into the game, but goalkeeper Pat Onstad injured his right shoulder in the first half, while defender Eddie Robinson, who had his left knee drained prior to the match, suffered a left leg contusion after Cameron's goal.

According to Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear, neither player will even travel to Costa Rica, much less make the substitutes' bench.

"If [Saprissa] had grass, we would probably bring them along," Kinnear said. "It's on turf, and it's a beat-up turf, so that's the reason why we're being extra cautious. We still have 28 league games left."

That's not all. Midfielder Stuart Holden is also out, while defender Bobby Boswell is suspended for the match due to accumulation of yellow cards, meaning that the Dynamo's back line will likely consist of Patrick Ianni and Craig Waibel in the middle, with Wade Barrett and Richard Mulrooney manning the flanks. Given Boswell's shaky play in the early weeks of the season, some might consider this development a blessing, but trying an untested central pairing hardly seems like an ideal solution, not that Kinnear has any choice.

Nor does the Houston manager have many options in goal, where Tony Caig delivered a Sybil-like performance in relief of Onstad, conceding two soft goals before coming up big three times late in the match. Kinnear certainly took a positive angle on Caig's play, in particular his stoning of Ricardinho on a late breakaway.

"Caig's save on that one-on-one led to our goal," Kinnear said. "You don't think about it at the time, but when you watch the game again you think, 'OK, he makes that save, we pick up the ball and score.' It goes from 4-2 to 3-3, and a lot of it has to do with Tony's save."

The return of Ricardo Clark should help the Dynamo's cause, while injured midfielders Brian Mullan and Brad Davis look set to play bigger roles following their substitute appearances against FCD. That Franco Caraccio netted his first MLS goal was also a welcome sign for the Dynamo, as the Argentine looks set to give the Dynamo another front line threat besides Brian Ching.

But that is scant compensation given the upheaval along Houston's back line, especially against a well-rested Saprissa side. The "Monstruo Morado" basically fielded a reserve side in a 3-1 loss to Universidad de Costa Rica last weekend, and while forward Alejandro Alpizar remains injured, midfielder Walter Centeno will return following his suspension for the first leg. Add in the fact that the Saprissa has never lost at home to an MLS side in three CCC encounters (they also won a fourth in the now defunct CONCACAF Giants' Cup) and you have some long odds indeed.

For the Dynamo to have any hope, their possession game will need to be at its peak, the better to ease the pressure on their makeshift defense, and take the sting out of the crowd.

"I'm sure with their fans there, [Saprissa] will be looking to attack with more venom right from the get-go, and we have to make sure we don't just sit back and try to absorb it," said Kinnear. "We have to try and play in their half too."

Possession will also be the byword in D.C. United's second leg encounter with Pachuca. The Mexicans made good use of the nearly 8,000 feet in altitude during the first leg, with their solid passing game forcing United to chase, and causing so much fatigue -- both mental and physical -- that the visitors could do little with the ball once they got it. But United head coach Tom Soehn expects that to change now that the two sides will be playing at sea level.

"Not having the altitude to deal with, I think there is a little more energy and life, especially for a team that is this early in the season," said Soehn. "That alone will give guys more [passing] options."

CONCACAF Champions Cup
Wednesday
D.C. United vs. Pachuca
RFK Stadium, Washington
7:30 p.m. ET

Deportivo Saprissa vs. Houston
San Jose, Costa Rica
10 p.m. ET

The return of forward Jaime Moreno should also give the Black-and-Red a lift in this regard. The league's all-time leading goal scorer is still not fully match fit, but he successfully navigated a 45-minute stint in United's 4-1 demolition of Toronto FC last weekend, and his guile and experience should come in handy.

Perhaps a bigger difference will be United's tactical approach. The Pachuca team is rife with attacking players who are adept at possessing the ball, and this applies to more blue-collar types like midfielder Jaime Correa as well. For that reason, opponents tend to sit back and defend in numbers, but Soehn believes that a weakness along Pachuca's back line is there to be exploited.

"There are very few teams that try to high pressure Pachuca, and I think there is a big advantage to doing that," said Soehn. "The teams that I saw do it were very successful. Their defenders tend to cough up balls, so if you do a good job of getting after their backs, you might be able to create some opportunities that way."

That will also require some tactical discipline on the other end, especially along a back line that is still getting to know one another given the recent additions of Gonzalo Peralta and Gonzalo Martinez.

How United's defense accounts for Pachuca attacker Christian Giménez will also have a huge impact on the outcome. The Argentine is much like Chicago's Cuauhtémoc Blanco in that both players tend to drift into open spaces, making them difficult to track. While that will require good communication in the back, Soehn feels that the best defense will be an improved offense.

"If you let them have control of possession, [Giménez] is a big problem," said Soehn. "If you can dictate the terms a little bit more and have control of the ball, I think that in some ways he becomes a liability because his first thought isn't always defending."

Given that they are two goals down, the same will be true of United. And while the Black-and-Red won't be reckless, they will be aggressive.

Soehn said, "We're going to go down swinging -- if we go down -- and we're going to throw everything at them we can."

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




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