WASHINGTON – D.C. United are back in the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time since the 2009-10 edition of the tournament, and when they take the field at RFK Stadium on Wednesday for their group-stage opener (8 pm ET; Fox Sports 2), one player in particular will do so with added motivation.
In 2011, United forward Fabián Espíndola came within minutes of winning the CCL title as a member of Real Salt Lake. RSL’s memorable run remains the closest an MLS side has come to winning the tournament in its current format, and the 3-2 aggregate loss to Monterrey has stuck with Espíndola ever since.
"Being in the final and not winning it,” a steely Espíndola told MLSsoccer.com last week, "that’s burned into my brain, honestly. I want to win that tournament.”
United are an unlikely entrant into this year’s edition.
Despite having the worst record in MLS history in 2013, D.C.’s miraculous run to a US Open Cup title that same season booked them a spot in the tournament. Drawn into one of the weakest groups in the competition and in the midst of a remarkable turnaround in league play, United seem the favorites to advance. The group also features Jamaican side Waterhouse and Panamanian club Tauro.
Still, D.C. have concerns heading into the group stage: A heavily-congested schedule and recent spate of injuries have put their depth to the test.
"I think we’re put together well to succeed in this tournament,” Espíndola said. "The problem in general with this tournament, though, is that a Mexican club, for example, can carry 35 players on their roster. Here in the States, teams are smaller; you get a couple of injuries, and all of a sudden things get complicated for you. It’s tough to win a championship that way."
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There is also the issue of how seriously some MLS clubs even take the tournament. Despite assurances from coaches and players that CCL carries significant weight, MLS sides have over the years placed varying levels of importance on the competition, with some trotting out reserve lineups for group-stage matches and, at times, faring poorly.
Asked how seriously he takes Champions League play, Espíndola took very little time to formulate an answer.
"I think this is a very, very important tournament, especially for MLS,” he said. “You’ve seen recently that MLS sides have fared much better against some of the Mexican clubs – Cruz Azul, Santos [Laguna]. What’s more, I think it’d be good for an MLS side to win the tournament, which obviously has never happened.
"You can see the league getting closer and closer to winning it. There is no gulf in talent anymore between Mexican teams and American ones; it's just an issue now of going out and winning the tournament."