Pivotal CONCACAF match awaits DC

WASHINGTON -- After several years of fruitless hoping and dreaming about international success, D.C. United can take a massive step towards the knockout stages of CONCACAF Champions League at RFK Stadium on Thursday night as they play host to CD Marathon in a match likely to determine which team will snag second place in CCL Group B.Last month United stumbled out to a 0-2 start in group play -- including a close-run 3-1 away setback against Marathon -- as coach Tom Soehn fielded reserve-heavy lineups due to schedule congestion, extending the club's history of Champions League frustration to eight consecutive games without a victory.But last week's Group B results changed the picture substantially, with D.C.'s 1-0 win over San Juan Jabloteh and Marathon's 7-0 humbling in Mexico at the hands of group leaders Toluca FC turning Thursday night into the most pivotal match remaining on the calendar."Obviously losing that game over at their place, on a day where I thought we performed pretty well, leaves a bitter taste in your mouth," said Soehn of his team's August 28 loss in Honduras, "and now you get to get them in your building and take care of business here."Toluca have nearly booked their ticket to the quarterfinals thanks to a perfect 3-0-0 record, but a win for United this week would pull the Black-and-Red level with Marathon in second place on six points, and a comfortable scoreline could provide the advantage needed to nip the Honduran side to a berth in the next round. Under the tournament's tiebreaker system, head-to-head goal differential and away goals are the deciding factors should the two clubs remain deadlocked at the close of group play. So a winning margin of two goals or greater would represent a massive bonus for D.C. and essentially leave the MLS club in control of its destiny with two matches remaining."Yeah, that was really good for us," said midfielder Andrew Jacobson of last week's events. "If we can get three points in each of the next two games, hopefully we can go to Toluca and they'll probably field a more reserve team, and maybe we can go there and get a point or even get three points."United have enjoyed more than a week's rest since last Tuesday's triumph in Trinidad, ending a taxing stretch of 10 games over the previous month and offering a welcome opportunity for the squad "to get themselves ready for our next battle," in Soehn's words. With five consecutive home games at hand in league and Champions League play, D.C. can take major strides towards the twin goals of MLS playoff and CCL knockout stage competition in the next few weeks."We're looking forward to it," said Soehn, "knowing that we're still alive and in a pretty good spot with our Champions League games -- and obviously we know the importance of our league games. I've said this before: we need to take care of our own results."Marathon's recent rough patch has given Soehn and his charges further reason for optimism. The Hondurans were comprehensively ambushed in the rarified air of Toluca's Estadio Nemesio Díez last Thursday, and also lost star striker Jerry Palacios to a first-half red card that renders him ineligible for the United match as well."El Monstruo Verde" went on to lose 2-0 in a domestic league match against Platense on Saturday, and political strife back home has since forced the team to travel several hours overland to catch a flight to Washington from neighboring Guatemala barely 24 hours before scheduled kickoff."I'm sure that's going to be a difficult game for them to get over," said Soehn on Monday, referring to the loss to Toluca. "It showed this weekend when they lost at home, 2-0. And now they have to travel to our place."Thursday's hosts have several chinks in their own armor, however. A spate of injuries have robbed Soehn of nearly all his first-choice defenders as Dejan Jakovic, Marc Burch and now Bryan Namoff will have to miss the match. Midfielders Santino Quaranta and Fred are returning from quadriceps and calf knocks, respectively, while playmaker Christian Gomez is suspended on yellow card accumulation -- a topic of particular aggravation for United given that one of the cautions in question dates back to the previous qualifying stage.Knowing the importance of an aggregate victory over Marathon, D.C. will have to attack with urgency while keeping sufficient numbers in defense to prevent their visitors from sneaking any away goals on the counterattack. The situation is delicately poised but Soehn is keeping things simple for his team: win the next few games at all costs."We just look at our next game," said the United boss. "That'll all settle at the end. But right now our most important game is Marathon and then the next one after that is San Jose. You have to win those games -- they're all playoff games in our eyes."