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Feb 22, 2007

United in prime position after emphatic win

If there was ever a script that rivaled the "Friday the 13th" series for sheer exhaustion, then the story of MLS teams on the road in the CONCACAF Champions Cup would be it. You know the drill. An MLS team travels to Central America to face tough opposition, and then proceeds to watch a parade of dubious decisions and rampant gamesmanship scuttle any hopes of progressing to the next round. But following the performances on Wednesday by D.C. United and the Houston Dynamo, it's possible that both MLS sides are concocting new plot lines for this year's competition.

Of the two teams in action, United's performance in a 4-1 demolition of Honduran side CD Olimpia was the more noteworthy, if only for the sheer lack of drama it produced.

The result marked just the fifth time an MLS side had triumphed on foreign soil in the tournament, and it was by far the most emphatic. And there was nothing fluky about the result either. The Black-and-Red were solid in most every respect, and their ruthless finishing allowed them to actually enjoy garbage time on the road, which must be a first for an MLS club.

In particular, midfield maestro and reigning league MVP Christian Gomez was operating near peak form, scoring two highlight reel goals. About the only way that Gomez's first strike -- a 25-yard, upper-90 dart in the 26th minute -- could have been placed any better was if the Argentine had picked up the ball, walked to the goal line and thrown it in. And his second tally, another exquisitely placed drive in the 60th minute, saw what little life was left in the home side evaporate.

But United's victory was far from a one-man show. United look to have found a solid addition in new striker Luciano Emilio, whose cheeky back heel in first-half stoppage time saw him notch the game-winner against his former club. The Brazilian also helped his side with some valuable hold-up play and combined well with front-line partner Jaime Moreno. And while hardly dominant, United's midfield possessed the ball well enough given the hostile conditions to ease the pressure on its back line.

It now leaves United in an unfamiliar position for an MLS side; that of needing simply to manage their way through the return leg in order to reach the semifinals.

Alas, Houston won't have that luxury against Costa Rican side Puntarenas. The Dynamo will take a one-goal deficit back to Texas from a performance that was as scrappy as United's was composed. But as painful as Kurt Bernard's deflected, stoppage-time goal was for Houston, Dominic Kinnear's charges will take solace in just surviving Wednesday's encounter.

The home side not only dominated the proceedings, but was given some considerable breaks by referee German Arredondo, including an early penalty and a second-half red card for defender Eddie Robinson that could be charitably classified as "fiction." Fortunately for the Dynamo, a combination of heroic goalkeeping by Zach Wells, gutsy team defending and a woeful shooting display from Bernard rode to their rescue.

Of the three, the performance of Wells was the most unexpected. If the sight of veteran goalkeeper Pat Onstad hobbling off with an apparent right ankle injury after just 23 minutes was unsettling, then Wells' first touch, in which his goal kick saw him fall flat on his butt, didn't inspire much confidence either. But Wells' second, in which he touched Bernard's 26th minute penalty around his left-hand post, set the stage for a magnificent performance.

Aside from one poor attempted punch, Wells produced a nearly flawless display that twice saw him save at the feet of Brazilian attacker Jorge Barbosa. And given the way Houston was playing, it needed those saves. The absence of forward Brian Ching, the struggles of Dwayne De Rosario, as well as an indifferent display from midfielder Brad Davis saw the Dynamo's offense stuck in neutral, leaving the home side to do nearly all of the attacking.

Yet midway through the second half, the Dynamo appeared to be on their way to surviving the onslaught. That is until Robinson was given a second yellow card for either dissent or wasting time, no one was sure. Welcome to CONCACAF refereeing, Eddie.

The expulsion, and the Dynamo's already heavy legs, saw Houston's solid defending give way to the more desperate variety. This eventually set the stage for Bernard's late goal -- although it's worth noting that so awful was his shooting on the day, that he needed the help of Ricardo Clark's foot to finally put the ball in the net.

While the goal is one that some teams might find crushing, it shouldn't bother the Dynamo. In last year's playoffs against Chivas, Brad Guzan's penalty save from De Rosario was supposed to knock the Dynamo off their stride. It didn't faze them a bit, and neither did the prospect of facing deficits in both the conference final and the MLS Cup final.

The history of MLS teams in the CCC is also on Houston's side. When an MLS team has trailed from the road leg by one goal, it has won the series every time. It leaves the Dynamo with a bit more work to do, but if an extra week is sufficient to get Ching back on the field, then it's a task well within Houston's capabilities.

And if the Dynamo can pull it off and if United advance as expected, then they will indeed be writing a new script for MLS clubs in the CCC.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.