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Home test key for DC CONCACAF hopes

WASHINGTON -- Eleven years ago this month, D.C. United made North American soccer history, winning the CONCACAF Champions' Cup with a 1-0 win over Mexican champions Deportivo Toluca FC at RFK Stadium. A game-winning goal from defender Eddie Pope crowned D.C. as continental champions, the first U.S. club ever to attain such an honor -- an achievement that earned newfound respect for fledgling Major League Soccer throughout the region.United will hope to summon a few of those ghosts on Wednesday night when they play host to Toluca once again, this time in the group stages of CONCACAF Champions League, the latest incarnation of the tournament. Though the stakes won't quite reach the level of a cup final, it remains an important match for the home side and one that could prove pivotal for their hopes of competing for a top spot in Champions League Group B.Few modern MLS sides can hope for the sort of dominance and man-for-man quality that former coach Bruce Arena's side enjoyed in the league's early years. But the sweeping accomplishments of that era have become the ultimate measuring stick for every ambitious United team since."It's impossible to forget," said United captain Jaime Moreno, one of two D.C. players remaining from that 1998 squad, when asked about his memories of the triumph over Toluca."We had a great team back then. Soccer maybe was a little different too. It's very hard to compare, but definitely it was a great experience. Like Bruce used to say, it wasn't much that he did coaching-wise, because it was a team that everyone on knew his job and knew what to do when it came to big games. That's something that we're trying to achieve with this team, with the young guys, trying to learn to be a winner."Toluca qualified for the Champions League as 2008 Apertura champions of the Mexican Primera Division, the league which has done most to distinguish itself in CONCACAF play over the years and one whose clubs have consistently bedeviled United in recent campaigns. For D.C.'s younger players, Wednesday's task is complicated by the canny rhythms of international competition."It's definitely a different pace to the game. MLS is a lot faster-paced and a little bit less technical, whereas in [CONCACAF] it's a lot more technical and a little less pace to the play," said D.C. rookie midfielder Andrew Jacobson. "Growing up, I've always played against Mexican teams in the Dallas Cup [youth tournament] and stuff, and they have a lot of quality there. They have really professional academies there and they bring up some quality players.""Los Diablos Rojos" have already secured three points in group play thanks to a valuable 1-0 road win over Trinidad's San Juan Jabloteh last week. Conversely, United sit in the Group B basement following their 3-1 setback against CD Marathon in Honduras."It's a home match," said D.C. attacker Chris Pontius after Saturday's 0-0 league draw against the LA Galaxy. "They're going to play a different style than an MLS team, but we have to come out and win this game. We just lost to Marathon, so we need to step up. We can't fall behind the 8-ball too much, so we're going out to win this game on Wednesday."Tom Soehn's side needs a victory for reasons beyond the realm of Champions League contention. The Black-and-Red have won just one match out of eight contests over the past month -- that being the skin-of-the-teeth shootout win over Salvadoran side Luis Angel Firpo that qualified them for the CCL group stages -- and to continue such futility at this juncture in the season would also put their hopes of an MLS playoff spot in real danger.The squad has grown increasingly frustrated in recent weeks, but they can take some comfort from the fact that nine of their final 14 games (in all competitions) will take place in RFK's friendly confines. United have won just two road matches all season."Obviously our schedule works in our favor a little bit. For sure, since we haven't gotten some road results, you definitely want to take care of your home games," said assistant coach Mark Simpson last week. "So everything's tightened up in both tables and now we have to make sure we do the deal at home and put ourselves in a good position to not only get in the playoff race, but make a run at CONCACAF as well."