D.C. happy with improved CCL campaign
WASHINGTON -- A year ago D.C. United were 0-3 in CONCACAF Champions League group play and going nowhere fast, wracked by injuries and distracted by a difficult domestic campaign that was unraveling before their eyes. Fielding reserve-laden lineups, the Black-and-Red offered only token resistance in CCL play and duly finished at the bottom of their group.Twelve months on, the story looks dramatically different. With Wednesday night's 5-1 thrashing of San Juan Jabloteh at RFK Stadium, United have won three consecutive Champions League matches and occupy second place in Group B, needing rivals CD Marathon to lose just one of their final two games in order to book passage to the tourney's quarterfinal round."It feels great," said D.C. rookie Chris Pontius, "especially after last year. They didn't win a game in this competition, right? And now three in a row -- and the last two have been convincing wins, 5-1 tonight and 3-0 [against Marathon] the other night."D.C. have regularly turned to youngsters and backups in this year's competition, too, but the squad's improved depth has revealed itself as several players on the periphery have used Champions League games to state their case to head coach Tom Soehn."Most of the guys who played today are guys who are hungry," said Boyzzz Khumalo, who bagged a double in his first Champions League appearance of the year. "They just want to prove their point to the coach, that they belong here. We just want to work hard -- whenever we're given the opportunity we just want to go out there and do our best, and score and create chances for the team."United's domestic ambitions are on much shakier ground in the wake of Sunday's shock 2-1 loss to the last-place San Jose Earthquakes, and the team's inconsistency continues to exasperate Soehn and his staff. But against Jabloteh, D.C. looked far more comfortable in the role of favorite, bossing the game from start to finish and leaving little doubt about their ability to secure the winning result they needed.Dominating possession and changing the point of attack to good effect, the Black-and-Red repeatedly broke down the San Juan defense in the first half as Christian Gomez, Fred and Khumalo found the net to put the hosts in a commanding position before the match was even half over."We knew what we were getting into and how we thought we could break them down, and we did a good job of exposing the weak side and getting after them," said Soehn afterwards. "So our mentality, obviously coming off a dramatic loss, was pretty good. I think everybody's looking to rectify things."The night was especially sweet for Khumalo, who worked his way into a rich vein of form during United's midsummer U.S. Open Cup run only to be sidelined by a broken arm. His recovery was dramatically complicated by an infection that extended his spell on the sidelines and very nearly led to more severe consequences.But the South African's resilience has seen him haul his way back into the daily competition for playing time, and those labors bore fruit with a well-taken brace -- both coming off his less-favored left foot -- on Wednesday."My finishing touch, I just want to thank [assistant coach] Chad [Ashton], because I've been working with coach Chad on that," he said with a grin. "When I was hurt I was working on my left foot, and I thought I did kind of good today with my left foot. I just want to dedicate that to my mom, because she said I couldn't score with my left foot."United will now root for Toluca to hand them second place in Group B by defeating Marathon in Honduras on Thursday night, while they themselves must turn their focus to Saturday's massive league match against Chivas USA, a must-win in terms of their postseason hopes."This is a great win for us," said goalkeeper Milos Kocic. "If Marathon loses one game, then we're in. So this is a great achievement for the team. Now we've got to step up and fight for the MLS playoffs."Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com.