Champions League: Worst-case scenario haunts DC United, but optimism reigns ahead of return leg

WASHINGTON – Sometime during the build-up to D.C. United’s 5-2 loss to Alajuelense last Thursday in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal, D.C. captain Bobby Boswell spent a moment running through worst-case scenarios.

Having prepared for the match for weeks and anchoring a team built to succeed under tough circumstances, Boswell hardly could’ve imagined things would go as they did; but five goals later, United find themselves facing an uphill battle in the return leg of the series, to be played on Wednesday at RFK Stadium (8 pm ET; Fox Sports 2, Univision Deportes Network).

“My worst-case scenario – it actually happened,” Boswell told reporters during the team’s media availability on Tuesday morning. "I think we looked at what happened down there and are mad at ourselves more than anything. We just shot ourselves in the foot.”

United’s typically reliable back line — which includes Boswell, recent US national team standout Steve Birnbaum and former Galaxy fullback Sean Franklin — looked shaky at times on Thursday, as did United’s ‘keeper on the evening, Andrew Dykstra. Dykstra, filling in for an injured Bill Hamid, shouldered the blame for a pair of Alajuelense goals; none of the Costa Rican side’s goals seemed particularly hard earned.

"We gave up soft goals,” said United head coach Ben Olsen. “Defensively, in general, our habits were a little bit off, we didn’t look out for each other. Part of that is normal at this stage in the season, or preseason if you will. I think defensively that crew has been together a while and we know who we are so I expect a better defensive performance than what we had there."

Dykstra’s shortcomings in the series opener are likely the result of a long lay-off — the former Fire ‘keeper was playing his first competitive match in over half a year after recovering from an Achilles injury he suffered last year.

He proved himself reliable in 2014, leapfrogging Joe Willis in the pecking order to become the club’s No. 2. Boswell and his back-line mates were even more dependable last year, grabbing hold of one of the most porous defensive units in MLS and turning it into one of the league's best. 

With Hamid returning to the fold for Wednesday’s return leg — Olsen on Thursday suggested that the USMNT ‘keeper seemed fully recovered after aggravating a back injury — United should get a confidence boost between the pipes. And the chances of United putting together a similarly disappointing defensive effort seem pretty slim.

But one can’t help but feel the odds are stacked high in Alajuelense’s favor; you have to go back over a decade to find the last team in CCL play to overcome a three-goal deficit in the return leg of a series (the Chicago Fire did it in 2004, dropping the opener 5-2 to Trinidadian side San Juan Jabloteh before winning 4-0 back in Bridgeview.)

Regardless, there was little negativity in United’s locker room on Tuesday. Certainly every player polled felt that a comeback was possible; some seemed downright optimistic.

"I’ve never been in [a CCL series] where we had the second leg at home,” said Boswell. “To be able to really know what you have to do and to have it defined at home is an advantage. If we can go out and get some momentum and get some goals who knows what could happen.

“We just have to correct some mistakes that we made — and honestly we have to play shutout soccer if we’re going to have a chance. Obviously there’s hope."

"I’m a pretty optimistic guy in general,” added Olsen. "I think we’ll bounce back from that and learn from it. This team has the ability to respond when things don’t go our way and I expect us to do that Wednesday."

If United are to complete the historic turnaround, they’ll have to do it without the services of Finnish international Markus Halsti, who missed last week’s CCL affair with an MCL strain, one which Olsen said may keep him out an additional two weeks. Forward Luis Silva also remains unavailable after suffering what the team called a “soft tissue injury.”