Wednesday February 24th, 2016

D.C. United and the Seattle Sounders were eliminated from the MLS Cup playoffs on the same Sunday last November, and each waited a lengthy 107 days for its next competitive match.

When those games finally arrived, they were played under duress. D.C. opened the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals on Tuesday evening at Querétaro FC’s Estadio Corregidora, which stands some 6,000 feet above sea level. The Sounders then kicked off their two-leg, aggregate-goals series against star-studded Club América, the reigning continental champ and the most decorated team in CONCACAF.

Tuesday’s contests played out very differently. The soccer was languid down in Querétaro and frenetic in Seattle. D.C.’s task was to avoid falling too far behind on the road, thereby giving itself a fighting chance in next week’s decider in the U.S. capital. The Sounders’ job was to build a first-leg lead at home to provide some cushion for their trip to the Estadio Azteca.

Facing Mexican teams that already were seven games into their domestic campaigns, neither MLS outfit was able to fulfill those goals. D.C. held firm against Querétaro for 70 minutes before falling, 2–0, while the Sounders blew a lead on either side of halftime and settled for a 2–2 tie.

Only three MLS teams have ever defeated Mexican opposition in a home-and-home series, and D.C. and Seattle (which managed the feat in 2013) have their work cut out if they hope to add to that list. Here are three thoughts from the opening night of the CCL quarterfinals:

MLS clubs can’t hold on

They were where they wanted to be. Then, it all fell apart. In the Sounders’ case, it was an inability to stay organized and composed and maintain a pair of leads. For United, a welcome and deserved draw dissolved into a two-goal defeat.

In Seattle, Clint Dempsey put the hosts in front with a stunning free kick in the 44th minute, only to see the Sounders’ high defensive line come back to bite them just seconds later as Darwin Quintero raced onto a pass played over the center backs by Rubens Sambueza and beat goalkeeper Stefan Frei. Instead of heading into the locker room with an advantage, Seattle yielded a preventable away goal. That lapse in concentration could prove costly next week in Mexico City. It’s those moments that so often define and decide these CCL series.

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​Dempsey headed home his second goal of the night in the 52nd minute, but América leveled the score again in the 70th when Oribe Peralta drifted in behind experienced defenders Brad Evans and Tyrone Mears to redirect a feed from Sambueza. From there, the champions were able to lock down a result that puts them in good position to advance.

United’s capitulation was more about fitness than focus. As lungs and legs grew heavy, the discipline and organization faltered just enough for Querétaro to pull ahead. In the 71st minute, a long ball to the right corner left D.C. slightly stretched and vulnerable to a long-range piledriver from Yerson Candelo. A 1–0 defeat probably would’ve been fine. But in the 83rd, Édgar Benítez beat D.C.’s defenders to a looping pass from 39-year-old playmaker Sinha and finished at the near post. That second goal may be tough to overcome at RFK Stadium.

“We tried to keep the same effort but we fell a little bit,” United midfielder Marcelo Sarvas said. “First game, altitude, preseason—all the stuff together and I think the second goal hurt us a little bit.”

D.C. managed the first 70 minutes almost perfectly

United did almost everything right, which makes the final result all the more frustrating. Coach Ben Olsen’s plan was solid. His veteran back four of captain Bobby Boswell, new U.S. international Steve Birnbaum, veteran right back Sean Franklin and left back Taylor Kemp was positionally sound and connected. The midfield’s patience and low pressure frustrated Querétaro, which lacked the pace, urgency and quality to create solid chances.

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With 20 minutes left, D.C. could make a case that it was the better team. In fact, the more promising chances fell to the visitors. They just failed to finish them. Birnbaum set the tone with a fourth-minute header that was saved point blank by netminder Tiago Volpi. Although the hosts had most of the ball, United was far more efficient with it—at least until it was time to shoot. Fabián Espíndola failed to capitalize on an inviting 38th-minute rebound, Kemp struck the crossbar in the 60th and Birnbaum was stoned again, twice in quick succession, eight minutes later.

A United squad that had such trouble creating scoring opportunities last year went to Mexico just four weeks into its preseason, took more shots, earned more corner kicks and forced nine saves. Considering the obstacles, it was an impressive performance. But 90 minutes were required, and that proved too tall an order on Tuesday.

Clint Dempsey is rested and ready

Jordan Morris made his pro debut on Tuesday, but it was Dempsey who stole the spotlight. Any questions raised by his absence at last November’s World Cup qualifiers and the U.S. national team’s recent winter camp should be silenced after his effervescent performance on Tuesday. Dempsey was at his creative and ruthless best and showed signs that some rest and a full preseason with his club likely was the right recipe heading into a big year.

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While getting used to new attacking partners Morris and Nelson Valdez, Dempsey often roamed looking for the ball. And he frequently found it. He was plugged in and inventive, taking a team-high three shots and drawing a game-high seven fouls. His free kick goal in the first half was gorgeous, and his goal in the 52nd demonstrated his insatiable hunger to score. The Texan overpowered América defender Miguel Samudio and headed home a corner kick at the far post.

Dempsey will turn 33 next month and is likely nearing the end of his international run. There’s a new crop of U.S. forwards nipping at his heels, and this summer’s Copa América might be his last chance to lead the line at a major tournament. On top of that, he’ll be expected to help deliver that elusive MLS Cup to Seattle in his fourth season at the club. Shanghai-bound Obafemi Martins won’t be around this season to occupy defenders’ attention, but Dempsey looked more than capable of rising to the occasion on Tuesday against a very talented opponent. Deuce is far from done.

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