United face challenge in El Salvador
WASHINGTON -- Fresh off yet another maddeningly close-run result in Houston over the weekend, D.C. United fly directly to El Salvador to face one of their tallest tasks of the 2009 campaign as they seek to advance into the group stages of CONCACAF Champions League with a positive result against CD Luis Angel Firpo on Tuesday night.MLS teams almost always encounter unfamiliar conditions, demanding travel itineraries and hostile crowds on Central American journeys and those stresses have contributed to a history of poor away results in international competition.Last week's 1-1 first-leg deadlock at RFK Stadium further complicated United's task. In order to move on, Tom Soehn's squad must win outright or secure a multiple-goal draw under the away-goals rule -- no easy job against a Firpo side that performed well in Washington and will feel bullish about finishing off the tie at Estadio Monumental Cuscatlan."We've got to go in and get a result now in El Salvador," said United midfielder Andrew Jacobson. "It's something we just have to go and do, and not really concern ourselves with how difficult or how easy it's going to be: just go in and really take care of business."D.C. have endured a series of Latin American misfortunes in recent CONCACAF play and last year's 0-5-1 Champions League campaign included two road losses in Mexico and Honduras, as well as a 2-2 draw against Deportivo Saprissa in Costa Rica that ranked as the sole bright spot of a disappointing tournament for the Black-and-Red. But international tourneys always rank high on the D.C. agenda and this year's team is eager to vanquish the ghosts of the past."I think once we can go outside MLS borders we also want to show that we can be competitive at the international level and we're given another opportunity to do so," said defender Bryan Namoff, one of a few veterans who've been involved with almost all of United's heartbreaking moments in CONCACAF play over the past five years."We felt we were the better team at home and should've expected to win against Firpo. But now we have to go there and show that we're the better team overall, regardless of being away."Namoff and his back line mates will be critical to those hopes. United showed valiant spirit in battling back from a sudden 3-0 deficit in hot, humid conditions against the Houston Dynamo on Saturday, but the 4-3 final result pointed to the unforgiving manner in which top-caliber teams can punish the mental lapses that have dogged the D.C. defense all season."A lot of times it's mistakes on our part, which has either caused a goal or led to a goal, and it's just a frustrating time where these types of mistakes keep continuing to happen. It's problematic," said Namoff last week.But after conceding three times in a short span in the first half, Soehn rearranged his side in a 4-4-2 alignment for the latter part of the Dynamo match and the results were promising. Given Tuesday night's high-stakes setting, the prospect of a formation change in the United camp seems very real."We started to have a little more possession. With the tactical change, we started to put some pressure on them. There are positives to build upon with this type of formation," said Namoff. "We have to look over tape and look at the positives and also try to find out what went wrong in that three-minute span where we gave up the three goals."Altering D.C.'s usual 3-5-2 shape could hand Greg Janicki a priceless shot at redemption. The big center back's mistake led to Firpo striker Mario Benitez's goal in the first leg and he would be the natural central partner to Dejan Jakovic if Soehn uses a four-man back line."I want to be in the first XI every game, obviously," said Janicki after the first leg. "But I'd love to give them some payback and show them how we can really play, and how I can really play."So while history and statistics might not run in their favor, there's no time like the present for United as the squad seeks a spark to vanquish their midsummer blues with a Salvadoran breakthrough."It's one where if we can get a jump," said Namoff, "that could be our time to start our win streak, to turn this around."