Jaime Moreno

Pumas, pitch pose challenges for United

Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions' Cup semifinal first leg between D.C. United and Mexican champions Pumas UNAM promises to be a high-profile showdown between the reigning kings of the region's top two leagues.

But it's also the first chapter of United's grand experiment as the first team in MLS history to share a stadium with a baseball team, thanks to the arrival of the Washington Nationals.

It's not a voluntary experiment, but one that has been forced upon a proud club that is quite bemused to see its place in the local sports pecking order, despite being Washington's most successful franchise -- by far -- of the past decade.

"It's completely out of our hands," says veteran midfielder Ben Olsen with a wry grin. "I don't know. We'll see. All I know is, they're saying it's going to be great. Until I see otherwise, or fall over a big divot, that's what it is."

Olsen is referring to the unprecedented groundsharing effort put together by the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which receives its first test tonight.

Following Sunday afternoon's exhibition game between the Nationals and the New York Mets, groundskeepers have labored to transform the renovated stadium back into a passable soccer facility using a removable hydraulic pitching mound, a grass carpet over the Nationals' dirt infield and a massive, sliding seat section in the left field/east touchline area.

Though still being flattened to sit level with the rest of the grass on Tuesday, the infield rug is clearly betrayed by seams on its edges, and with United not allowed to use the field until gametime, there's still no telling how it might affect the match's outcome.

Predictably, no-nonsense United head coach Peter Nowak leaves no room for excuses.

"It's still green," he said. "It's grass. That's the most important thing: it's green and it has two goals and 22 players."

Meanwhile, construction continues throughout the stadium as workers hustle to finish the ambitious remodeling project in time for the Nationals' first home game next Thursday. There's been considerable reshuffling throughout the stadium's depths, with the United locker room one of the few areas left relatively unscathed.

"I think we were prepared for it," says Olsen of the RFK upheaval. "We knew we were going to have to make some adjustments. It's tough when you're here this many years, and some things move, and you have to move."

United's meeting with Pumas is the second in a draining sequence of five matches in 14 days, limiting United's ability to prepare for Pumas' tendencies and style of play. But as with their previous Champions' Cup opponent, Jamaica's Harbour View FC, Nowak and his charges are more focused on their own performance.

"Winning the Mexican championship twice, it must be a very good team," said Nowak. "They are favorites in this series, there is no question about that. But we have to worry about ourselves. We know what we have to do, we know how to play. We're going to adjust to the situation and see what we have to do to beat them."

"They're a typical Mexican team -- they're good on the ball, they pressure well up top," says Olsen. "It helps us to play Chivas USA the week before, but we're going to have to play a lot better than we did against Chivas to get by Pumas."

The match may hinge on whether the individual skill and flair of Pumas can be discomfited by United's constant pressure and opportunistic counterattacking. Nowak emphasizes a team defensive approach relying on spirited, energetic work from attackers and midfielders as well as fullbacks -- "running and fighting," as he describes it.

"It's not just what's in our back -- we have to think about our front, our middle," he said. "You have to trust each other and cover for each other, and make sure that the guys up front and in the midfield do a good enough job to help."

With Bryan Namoff still recovering from a back injury, Nowak will likely start the same backline as Saturday's opener in Los Angeles, with Mike Petke and Brandon Prideaux flanking surprise rookie success Bobby Boswell.

The midfield and striker positions should also be unchanged, although United's volume of matches in the coming weeks might lead Nowak to plan extra minutes for Freddy Adu or Santino Quaranta in relief of Steve Guppy and Josh Gros on the wings.

Nowak insists that his players know what's at stake, and he wants the team to get off to a quick start in the two-leg series.

"Whether its playoffs or championships, the first game is always crucial," he said. "It's a big challenge for us, but I'm pretty sure that we're going to win the series and move on. We are capable, and I think the team has now recognized the chance to play in the world club championship."

Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.