There’s very little one can do to sugarcoat D.C. United’s 5-2 loss in Costa Rica on Thursday night, the opening match of their Scotiabank Champions League quarterfinal series against Alajuelense.
Yes, United nabbed a pair of away goals. Sure, they seemed a bit more composed during stretches of the second half and were largely undone by a pair of dreadful mistakes from their goalkeeper. But the reality is just too sobering: D.C. were thoroughly outplayed and now face an uphill battle – and a steep one – needing at least three goals in the return leg next Wednesday to secure advancement.
In a way, the opening phases of the match looked exactly like what it was: a match-up between a team in preseason form and one who found themselves in the middle of their regular season, a storyline all too familiar to MLS fans forced to deal with the mismatch between the CONCACAF and MLS schedules. United came out flat; Alajuelense came out on the front foot, feeding on the lively home crowd.
“This was a real game,” D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen told the media in attendance after the match. “We took too long to get into what was a very physical game against a good group. It’s pretty simple. This was our first real game in a while and it just took us too long [to get up to speed] so we had to spend the rest of the time out there chasing the game.
"Give them a lot of credit – they came at us and gave us a lot of difficulty and we just didn’t handle it well. I think we did a much better job of handling the game at the end of the first half and into the second half, getting a hold of it, getting up to speed. Just costly mistakes. Very soft goals.”
None of Alajuelense’s goals seemed particularly hard earned on Thursday evening, but two in particular stood out: the build-up to Ariel Rodriguez’s opening strike from the penalty spot and Johan Venegas’ 27th minute tally, which stretched the Costa Rican side’s lead to 3-1. D.C. ‘keeper Andrew Dykstra – filling in for an injured Bill Hamid – shoulders the blame for both of those goals. His rash challenge at the edge of his penalty area was responsible for Rodriguez’s goal, while a mishandled cross led to the other.
To be fair, Dykstra got the nod against Alajuelense under unenviable circumstances: Hamid had largely been considered the probable starter during the build-up to the match, and Dykstra was playing his first competitive game in more than half a year after suffering a ruptured achilles tendon last summer.
“I won’t sugarcoat this, and my goalkeeper won’t sugarcoat this: [Dykstra] had a bad night,” said Olsen. "What you guys don’t know is that he’s been out for seven months and we rushed him back several weeks ago - our starting keeper went down and we had to use him today. He was out of rhythm and he wasn’t sharp. This is pretty normal when you have to rely on guys that are coming back from injury and have been out for almost a year; this is a normal thing. He is a very, very good goalkeeper, and he’ll be back from this.”
The series, of course, is not over just yet. D.C. will welcome the Ticos to RFK stadium on Wednesday for the return leg. Though United would have at least liked to avoid giving up a fifth goal at the death – that one hurt – the two away goals they secured mean that they’ll need at least a three-goal margin of victory (while surrendering two goals or less) to book a spot in the semifinals. A tall order, yes, but stranger things have happened.
On Thursday, Olsen suggested that the 5-2 loss would at minimum yield some valuable lessons for his squad heading into the series finale.
"We know who we are,” said Olsen. "I think just by going through this game, we’re better. We now understand what the pace of the game looks like in this quarterfinal. Unfortunately it took us this game to realize that - and it shouldn’t, because this was a very big game which meant a lot. We’ll learn from this, and just playing at this speed and in this atmosphere betters us.”
The Costa Rican press, it seemed, were a bit more skeptical of any potential comeback. “Do you think the series is over? Do you guys have a chance?” asked one reporter.
“There is always a chance,” Olsen responded flatly. “This is soccer."