It wasn’t pretty. But when an MLS team wins on the road in CONCACAF Champions League play, it rarely ever is.
D.C. United leaned on some excellent goalkeeping and managed to find a late winner against Panamanian side Árabe Unido on Thursday evening, collecting all three points with a 1-0 victory in hostile territory. Though three games remain, United have set themselves up nicely in group H, where D.C. and Árabe seem likely to be the two teams clashing for the top spot and a place in the tournament’s quarterfinals.
As most MLS sides do at this stage in the tournament, United fielded a mix of reserves and starters for their opener.
In midfield, a recently recovered Chris Pontius found himself lined up with Markus Halsti, rookie winger Miguel Aguilar, Jared Jeffrey and Facundo Coria. In the back, regular starting center back Steve Birnbaum paired with Kofi Opare, while reserve players Luke Mishu and Jalen Robinson played out wide. Spot starter Jairo Arrieta got the nod up top.
The motley crew took a while to settle into a groove and struggled a tad during the game’s opening stanza, not something that came as much of a surprise to United assistant coach Chad Ashton, filling in for a suspended Ben Olsen.
"It’s obviously different bodies,” Ashton told the media in attendance after the match. “Those guys haven’t had a lot of time together, so obviously there’s going to be some rust and some things that aren’t perfect.
“... But I thought as the game went on they found their way. You saw guys start to develop some relationships on the field, guys that are typically doing that more in practice. To be able to do it more in a game, and at a faster pace and in a tough environment is a much different thing.”
D.C. relied on backup ‘keeper Andrew Dykstra to weather a barrage of first-half Árabe attempts and, later, a second-half storm as well. They remained defensively sound through most of the match, and had a few chances of their own through both halves.
“We had to fight for the win,” said Halsti, who looked sharp in midfield and later at center back. “I hope it showed that we wanted this more than them, maybe. [It was a] tough game, so it means a lot to us.”
Their best chance of the match, however, was easily their last, which led to their goal. Coria, second-half substitute Michael Farfan and Aguilar combined on the game-winner. Farfan rolled a cheeky back-heel to Aguilar, who calmly slotted it past the Panamanian ‘keeper for the 85th-minute goal.
It’s not an entirely unfamiliar game plan for United, who’ve used a similar approach to extract results on the road in league play as well.
"We came to get a result,” said Ashton. "We do whatever we have to do in order to achieve that. Yes, they were very aggressive, very attack oriented, but even in our own country, against our own league at times on the road we play exactly the same [style], with the idea that we’re going to leave with a result."
“Obviously,” Ashton concluded, "getting this result puts us in a good position. But we still have three games to play. We know the job isn’t done. But we have a lot further to go with this competition, and you can’t take anything for granted."