Three Thoughts: D.C. United falls to Alajuelense in another dud for MLS

D.C. United was thumped by Alajuelense in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League home-and-home on Wednesday, delivering further disappointment in MLS' quest for a deep tournament run.
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Major League Soccer’s CONCACAF misery continued on Thursday as D.C. United, likely the circuit’s best hope for a deep Champions League run, was thumped 5-2 by Costa Rica’s LD Alajuelense in the opening match of their two-game, home-and-home quarterfinal.

MLS teams had been improving ever so gradually in continental play and recently had been getting the better of opposition from outside Mexico. But LDA proved to be far too much to handle at the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto, leaving D.C. with a massive hill to climb in next Wednesday’s second leg.

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Here are three thoughts from yet another CONCACAF calamity:

1. Poor form was better than no form.

Alajuelense stumbled into Thursday’s match on a two-game slide, including last weekend’s setback to archrivalDeportivoSaprissa. But at least it had been playing, and any hope in the D.C. camp that the hosts’ slide would continue was erased almost immediately. LDA was in rhythm from the opening kickoff and forced a save from United goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra in the first minute.

While LDA had contested 10 competitive games in the past 40 days, United hadn’t played a meaningful match in 110. D.C. was eliminated from the MLS playoffs back on Nov. 8, and the layoff showed. The visitors were sluggish, even on the slick artificial turf, were slow to react and were unable to establish any possession. D.C. was out of sync.

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United’s performance, or lack thereof, makes the Montreal Impact’s 2-2 tie in Pachuca on Tuesday look all the more impressive. MLS’ worst team last season, Montreal spent two weeks training in Mexico before the game and played with intelligence and energy. And Pachuca may have taken the Impact lightly. D.C., meanwhile, looked like so many other MLS clubs have at this time of year: out of its depth against an opponent in midseason form.

“Other teams are in a very good rhythm and we’re starting out behind from a rhythm and fitness standpoint. As you go into the season, you’re midway, you’re coming down the stretch, you’re a different team. You’re a better team than you are in preseason,” D.C. coach Ben Olsen told before leaving for Costa Rica. “I think because of the timing of it, we’ve become a long shot as we get to this stage of the tournament.”

Since the CCL was expanded in 2008, MLS clubs have won only three of 15 knockout-round series against foreign opposition.

There are other factors, for sure, starting with how the depth and wage scale for Mexican teams compares to their MLS counterparts. But as long as the CCL’s most important matches start in February, MLS will be at a disadvantage. There’s no reason CONCACAF can’t join Asia and Africa and play its championship tournament over the calendar year, giving MLS clubs a better shot in the knockout stage and Mexican teams, still the tournament favorites, an opportunity to hit the Club World Cup on a roll.

2. Dykstra's unsure hands cost United.

Olsen said he likes his team’s chances against Alajuelense because of the continuity between last year’s first-place finisher and this year’s side. United is a veteran team. But D.C. suffered a massive loss during preseason training in Texas, when goalkeeper Bill Hamid picked up an undisclosed injury that forced Dykstra to start in goal. The Washington-area product hadn’t played since rupturing his Achilles last July, and he made two significant errors in the first half that cost D.C. dearly.

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​Dykstra, who’s played just four MLS games for United over the past three years (all in 2014), started brightly with a couple of early saves but lost his head in the 14th minute when he raced from the goal line and collided needlessly with LDA forward Armando Alonso at the edge of the penalty area. Ariel Rodríguez converted the ensuing spot kick.

The D.C. defense let Dykstra down in the 22nd as a wide-open José Ortiz scored easily, then the visitors pulled one back on a header from Fabián Espíndola. But the goalkeeper gifted another goal in the 27th, as he fumbled a cross straight into the path of Johan Venegas.

Hamid was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2015 and is the brightest prospect in the national team pool behind veterans Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando and Tim Howard. His value to United was amplified Thursday by his absence.

3. D.C. dealt gut punch at the death.

Trailing 4-1 as the minutes ticked away, D.C. wasn’t necessarily in a terrible spot. If LDA relaxed toward the end and United poached a late goal, the MLS club would return to Washington needing to win next Wednesday’s second leg by only two, and with an away-goals advantage to boot. That wouldn’t have been an impossible prospect.

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D.C. got that goal—then squandered its momentum almost immediately.

Defender Steve Birnbaum, who impressed at the U.S. national team’s January camp, made the score 4-2 with a thunderous, 88th-minute header off an Espíndola cross. Suddenly, despite a miserable evening, United had a CCL lifeline.

It lasted fewer than two minutes. A poor clearance by Birnbum, who was near the D.C. end line, led to a quick, incisive pass to an open Jonathan McDonald. The one-time Vancouver Whitecap punished D.C. for the mistake and powered his shot past Dykstra.

United now needs to win by three goals and hope LDA doesn’t match the two away markers. If D.C. fails, it will mark the first time since 2008 that an MLS side will have lost a home-and-home series to a Central American foe. The winning streak is eight.