Coming as it does before the actual start of the league season, the CONCACAF Champions' Cup provides Major League Soccer teams a chance to gauge exactly where they are heading into a new year -- while competing against clubs that are well into their domestic campaigns.
"We'll play better soccer than that at times, I'm sure," said midfielder Ben Olsen after D.C. United's 2-1 victory against Harbour View FC on Wednesday in the first leg of their quarterfinal series, "but right now we'll take it."
In sub-freezing conditions at the Maryland SportsPlex, United showed glimpses of the smooth, clinical style that powered them to a 2004 MLS Cup championship. Less exciting for the hardy Black-and-Red fans to watch: signs of the hesitancy and inconsistency that drove the squad into the MLS Eastern Conference cellar several times over the course of last season.
D.C. dominated possession throughout the match, but their high-powered attack often lacked a cutting edge in the Harbour View 18-yard box, with the exception of well-taken goals from Alecko Eskandarian and Josh Gros.
But the three-man back line of Bryan Namoff, Mike Petke and David Stokes looked more and more unsettled as the match went on, conceding space and turning the ball over in dangerous positions under relentless harrying by goalscorer Luton Shelton and his attacking partners.
"In today's soccer, if you leave the space like we did in the first half, every team is going to play through you," said United head coach Peter Nowak. "They were just playing too far away from the strikers, and the midfielders were without shape. You cannot do this playing against a team like that, with technical skills, because you're going to get caught on the counterattack."
Harbour View, the Caribbean representative in the Champions' Cup final eight and a top side in the Jamaican Premier League, offered plenty of skill and pace, though they would be the first to admit that Shelton's 23rd minute goal was a magnanimous gift from a home side that had been running rampant in the early going.
Gros had a shot cleared off the line in the game's opening moments, then Eskandarian rammed home a Freddy Adu cross set up by captain Jaime Moreno's crafty backheel. But the visitors kept their composure and weathered the early pressure before Shelton changed the match with his equalizer.
United goalkeeper Nick Rimando is one of the quickest and most athletic netminders in the league, but he can struggle with set pieces and high crosses into the box. That Achilles heel revealed itself again Wednesday as he misjudged a long service and collided with Stokes to leave Shelton with an easy finish.
But United was rescued by Gros' match-winner, a well-placed header that was ample reward for the second-year winger's intensity and end-to-end play. Now the matchup turns south to Kingston, where Harbour View will look to overturn the deficit in front of its vocal home crowd.
"We have a lot of stuff that we need to sort out, for sure," said Olsen. "But I'm happy with a win. Now we have another great challenge in ahead of us. Going to Jamaica is not going to be easy, but we're in the hunt."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.