WASHINGTON – It was the one thing D.C. United absolutely could not do, and they did it.
Four minutes into the return leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Liga MX side Queretaro on Tuesday, United allowed a goal. Queretaro playmaker Sinha swung a ball across D.C.’s penalty area to the head of forward Edgar Benitez, and United defenders Sean Franklin and Steve Birnbaum were poorly positioned to deal with it, leaving midfielder Angel Sepulveda open.
He made no mistake.
Already down 2-0 on aggregate, the away goal was a dagger. United would need four, an insurmountable task for a team in preseason form. They’d only muster one, losing the tie 3-1.
For the second year in a row, United were sent packing in the CCL quarters.
“[The goal] changes everything,” said D.C. head coach Ben Olsen after the match. “It changes the entire game. When you dig yourself in these holes, it's tough to get out. Three minutes in, all of a sudden, game's over. Just like that.”
The loss to Queretaro marks the second consecutive time that United have been eliminated in the quarters by a much lower-seeded opponent. The Liga MX side emerged from the group stage a No. 7 seed, while last year’s opponents – Costa Rican side Alajuelense – were eighth.
Many will point to the competitive disadvantage MLS teams face in the quarterfinals. Forced to take the field after barely a month of preseason, North American clubs have historically struggled against Mexican opponents; after the match, Queretaro’s head coach even acknowledged that “ventaja,” suggesting that Liga MX teams take the field already having formed a rhythm, while MLS teams struggle to adapt.
Observers of the tournament have occasionally wondered how seriously MLS clubs take the competition, knowing the cards are stacked against them. Olsen, however, was making few excuses after the match.
Knowing he’d need at least two goals to force extra time, he fielded his best 11.
“Did you see the team I put out there?” Olsen asked rhetorically. “It's arguably the best team I can put out there, so that's how seriously we take it. I didn't tell them to tank this tournament – we went after it. Didn't happen. We certainly go after this to move forward and advance, because it puts us in a spot to be in a great competition and ultimately hold another trophy.”
On the whole, United didn’t look terrible. For stretches, they dictated the pace of play and strung together several good chances. But the early goal made all of that meaningless, leaving Olsen to glean what he could from the two-game series as he pivots towards United’s league opener at the LA Galaxy on Sunday (10 pm ET, UniMas/MLS LIVE).
“When I look at these games, now that we haven't advanced, they're two very good preseason games to prepare us for the MLS season,” said Olsen. “I've asked the guys to take away and learn some of the lessons from the last two games but also put it to bed and get excited about the MLS season. We're 0-0-0. The losses are tough, but it's over.”
“I’d love to play [Queretaro] in another series,” he concluded. “I think we're just as good as they are right now. It's no disrespect to them, but if the ball bounces our way a little bit better then maybe we're through. But we're not, and give them credit.”