D.C. United bows out meekly for second straight season in CCL

WASHINGTON — First, let's get the obvious out of the way: The CONCACAF Champions League knockout round is never an ideal situation for MLS teams.

While American and Canadian clubs are shaking the rust off during preseason, their counterparts from Mexico and Central America are going full throttle in the middle of their seasons. This has been discussed.

Still, D.C. United has to be feeling an extra tinge of disappointment after it bowed out meekly at the quarterfinal stage for a second straight year at the hands of an indifferent opponent.

Two years in a row, United breezed through the group stage and set itself up with a relatively winnable quarterfinal, and two years in a row, the club was blown away without much resistance. 

Costa Rican side Alajuelense made a mockery of DCU's No. 1 seed last year, winning the first leg 5-2 and coasting to a 6-4 aggregate win.

In 2016, United again put itself behind the eight ball by losing 2-0 at Queretaro in the first leg. Needing to keep a clean sheet in Tuesday's second leg, instead DCU conceded four minutes in, leaving the home side needing to score four times to advance.

"It changes everything, it changes the entire game," United coach Ben Olsen said in his postgame news conference. "When you dig yourself in these holes, it's tough to get out.

"Three minutes in, all of a sudden game's over. Just like that."

United would go on to tie the game 1-1, but the outcome was never in doubt. Queretaro — a midtable side at best in Liga MX — cruised to a 3-1 aggregate win.

MLS badly wants one of its teams to break Mexico's stranglehold on the CCL, but it is up to individual teams to decide how much to emphasize the tournament. Could United have done more to prioritize the CCL? 

Before they faced Pachuca in last year's quarterfinal, the Montreal Impact spent two weeks training at altitude to acclimate to Mexico. The Impact became only the second MLS team to defeat a Mexican side in a two-leg CCL knockout tie, and it wasn't a coincidence.

Clearly, Montreal is the exception not the rule, but United seemed to treat Tuesday night's game as part of its preseason.

Regular starter Markus Halsti was held out of the lineup with a calf injury that wasn't severe enough to keep him out of the game, as he entered in the 67th minute.

Meanwhile, new signing Luciano Acosta was also held out of the lineup. The playmaker missed out because of jet lag after he flew from Mexico to Argentina and back to the United States following the first leg. Would that have held him out of an MLS playoff match?

Olsen, as one would expect, scoffed at the notion his team didn't take the tournament seriously.

"Did you see the team I put out there? It's arguably the best team I can put out there, so that's how seriously we take it," Olsen said. "I didn't tell them to tank this tournament — we went after it. [It] didn't happen. We certainly go after this to move forward and advance because it puts us in a spot to be in a great competition and ultimately hold another trophy."

Still, other comments Olsen made during his news conference would seem to suggest Tuesday night's game ranked somewhere between a preseason scrimmage and an MLS regular season encounter.

"When I look at these games, now that we haven't advanced, they're two very good preseason games to prepare us for the MLS season," Olsen said.

He added: "I think we're much better for having played these two games than playing two games in the [Carolina Challenge Cup], that's for sure." 

The scheduling doesn't help, but that's not the only reason United has been easily dispatched two years in a row.

Olsen's side won't have to worry about a disrupted preseason next year, though: The club didn't qualify for the 2016-17 CCL. That may not be the worst news for D.C. United.

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