WASHINGTON – D.C. United entered Tuesday night’s CONCACAF Champions League encounter with Panamanian side Árabe Unido needing only a draw claim the group title.
For good measure, they went ahead and won.
D.C. rode first-half goals from Conor Doyle and Jared Jeffrey to a 2-0 victory over Árabe Unido at RFK Stadium. The win leaves D.C. six points clear atop Group H, eliminating both Árabe Unido and Jamaican club Montego Bay United with a game to spare and becoming the first team of the 2015-16 tournament to advance to the quarterfinals, the second year in a row that D.C. have sewn their group up early.
United needed all of 34 seconds to get on the board. Center back Steve Birnbaum – among the only regulars in a lineup built mostly around depth players – collected the ball in United’s own end and cut a path up the middle of the field before spraying it wide left to Chris Pontius.
Pontius took a touch and swung the ball toward Jairo Arrieta at the penalty spot. The former Columbus Crew SC forward couldn’t connect, but fellow attacker Doyle ran onto the ball on the right side of the penalty area and hammered home a one-time blast, giving United the early lead.
D.C. doubled up in the 22nd minute. Argentine midfielder Facundo Coria sent in a corner kick from the near side, finding a wide-open Jeffrey at the far edge of the six-yard box; the midfielder made no mistake with the header, nodding it down and out of reach of Árabe Unido goalkeeper Miguel Lloyd.
Árabe Unido, who very nearly extracted a result from their first encounter with United in mid-August, looked out of sorts during the game’s opening stanza and failed to apply any real pressure. Though the Panamanians outshot United 10-5 in the first half, only one of those efforts was on frame, all of the others largely speculative.
Their best looks at pulling a goal back came on the other side of the halftime whistle. In the 52nd minute, Renan Addles, the club’s leading scorer in league play, stepped up to a free kick 25 yards from goal and sent an absolute screamer over the wall, off of United 'keeper Andrew Dykstra’s fingertips and into the crossbar. Five minutes later, midfielder Abdiel Macea’s close-range attempt also found the crossbar but deflected over the goal.
United’s early lead allowed them the luxury of subbing out a couple of key players, Birnbaum and Pontius, who may be leaned upon during D.C.’s crucial Eastern Conference clash with Columbus on Saturday.
Tuesday’s match means United’s Group H finale at Montego Bay on Sept. 22 only matters for quarterfinal-round seeding, with D.C. possibly able to guarantee home-field advantage throughout the knockout rounds with a win.