WASHINGTON - D.C. United’s CONCACAF Champions League match against Panamanian side Tauro on Wednesday evening probably couldn’t have gone much better, as far as D.C. were concerned.
Actually, the entire group stage has gone about as well as they could’ve hoped.
United became the first of the five Major League Soccer entrants into CCL to advance to the quarterfinals on Wednesday, using a reserve-heavy lineup to breeze by the Panamanian club 2-0 and win their group with a match to spare. Tauro were eliminated; United will visit them later in October in a match that will afford DC the opportunity to claim a top seed in the knockout phase.
It is the first time a United squad has advanced beyond the group phase of the Champions League since the competition’s format was reshaped in 2008.
“It was a good night in the sense that we rested some guys, got some guys that needed minutes minutes, and got the result which gets us into the next round,” United head coach Ben Olsen told the media at his post-match press conference.
Olsen knows CCL about as well as anybody in MLS. He was a participant in the competition in 2008-09 and 2009-10 – and can also claim to be among the few American players to have hoisted a continental title with an MLS club, having won the competition with United under its old “Champions' Cup” format in 1998.
"I think it’s important for this club to get back into this stage of the tournament,” said Olsen. "We were one of the early clubs that had success, and I was lucky enough to be a part of those teams, and I think our fans are excited to be back in the knockout stage. I think the league is excited to have us go through, as well as some of the other teams. I think it continues to show the growth of this league.”
Still, the head coach tempered that praise with a dose of reality. Gone are the days when MLS sides could fall back on inexperience as an excuse for an early CCL crash out. As far as Olsen is concerned, United did what was expected of them – and what should be expected of any other MLS club that qualifies for the tournament.
“At this point, we should get through this phase,” said Olsen. "Us, Kansas City, Portland and New York, we should get through. Now the test comes. We’ll play against the big boys in the next round, and hopefully an MLS team can put their stamp on this tournament.”
Through to the next phase, United can focus on the work at hand in MLS: taking care of business in their remaining five games and potentially earning a berth in next year’s edition of CCL by finishing the regular season atop the Eastern Conference. Their Oct. 21 match-up against Tauro in Panama City – which, had they lost Wednesday’s match could’ve been a do-or-die encounter – now carries a bit less weight.
Realistically, United will probably field a B-side in that match while they gear up for a playoff run. That said, United could still enter the group stage as a top seed (and thus earn the right to host the second leg of the quarterfinal series) should they emerge victorious, something Olsen acknowledged after Wednesday’s triumph.
"We’re going to go down there and try and get another result,” Olsen said. "We understand the seeding process can help you out in a big way – but [this victory] does give us a luxury in that last game to possibly not bring guys, depending on how the end of the [MLS] season shapes up. We can bring our top group or bring our second group."