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Houston and D.C. well-positioned to progress

When an MLS side opens on the road in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, survival is the name of the game, especially when you consider that America's teams are in preseason form while their opponents are well into their league programs. History has shown that if MLS clubs can avoid heavy first-leg defeats, their odds of progressing go up exponentially. Such was the case after Wednesday's opening matches for D.C. United and the Houston Dynamo. Both teams secured a draw on the road, although in each instance, it was more a case of a job done well enough, as opposed to a job done well.

And even though the results were the same, you can bet that Houston will feel a bit more satisfied about their 0-0 draw against CSD Municipal, as opposed to United's 1-1 stalemate with Harbour View. The Dynamo entered the match well short of full strength, with Patrick Ianni and Stuart Holden occupied by the Olympic qualifying tournament, while Brad Davis' hamstring injury ruled him out. Brian Mullan's family commitments ultimately did not prevent his participation, although his minutes and influence were limited to a late-game cameo.

It meant that Houston coach Dominic Kinnear had precious few options coming off the bench, and in the near mile-high altitude of Guatemala City, dragging his team to the finish line with its semifinal hopes intact would prove a mighty task indeed.

But as they have so many times in the past, the Dynamo found a way. Even as their starters wheezed their way to the final whistle, Houston was able to play with enough composure and intelligence to wrest the momentum away from Municipal at some key junctures. Richard Mulrooney, playing in an unfamiliar role on the right side of midfield, did much to distinguish himself. And if Chris Wondolowski had managed to convert just one of his two clear chances from close range, the Dynamo might have returned to Texas with a lead.

That said, had Municipal not suffered a colossal case of the yips in front of goal, the opposite might have been true. The most egregious miss came in the 57th minute, when from a mere six yards, the ineptness of Municipal midfielder Gonzalo Romero ensured that Pat Onstad's goal wasn't breached.

It leaves Houston in control of the cup tie heading into next week's second leg, although its passage to the semifinals is far from assured. Unless an unthinkable collapse by the U.S. occurs during Olympic qualifying, Houston will still be without Messrs. Holden and Ianni. Davis, if available at all, will be far from 90 minutes fit, leaving Kinnear with much the same predicament that he faced in the first leg, minus the lung-searing altitude and the hostile crowd.

CONCACAF Champions Cup
March 18
D.C. United vs. Harbour View
RFK Stadium, Washington
7:30 p.m. ET

March 19
Houston vs. CSD Municipal
Robertson Stadium, Houston
8:30 p.m. ET

Giving a few more minutes to new signing Franco Caraccio as well as Mullan, could help Houston's cause. At the least, an extended run-out will give Dynamo fans a better idea of what Caraccio is capable of, as opposed to the brief 10-minute stint he received on Wednesday. But given the possibility of extra time, Kinnear will likely play things just as close to the vest as he did in the first leg. And odds are his charges will find a way to prevail.

As for United, their draw was the kind of result that almost feels like a loss. The Black-and-Red had nursed a 1-0 lead for 40-odd minutes, only to concede Lovell Palmer's 85th minute equalizer courtesy of a corner-kick-turned-rugby-scrum. When combined with the hamstring injury sustained by forward Jaime Moreno, as well as the shaky defensive play on the flanks, it's likely that a few more wrinkles were permanently etched into the face of United head coach Tom Soehn.

The Black-and-Red could still take some positives away from the encounter, however. New center-backs Gonzalo Peralta and Gonzalo Martinez looked relatively composed throughout. The play of Franco Niell was a bit more hit-and-miss, although his high-octane speed seems the perfect complement to Luciano Emilio.

But the best news for United fans was the performance of new Designated Player signing Marcelo Gallardo. Was the Argentine razor sharp? Hardly, but he passed the first, and perhaps most important test for a DP, that being the "Does he care?" exam. It's an assessment that plenty of other big name players have failed upon entering MLS, and while this is isn't the last time the Argentine will be under such scrutiny, the early returns at least look promising.

Gallardo was active, saw plenty of the ball, and didn't look like a player aiming to take it easy, especially after he rode a few heavy challenges. Had his teammates been more precise in the timing of their runs, a few more clear openings would have been created. That kind of chemistry, especially given Gallardo's propensity to drop deep for the ball, will be developed over time.

Whether that commodity will be the cure for the rest of United's ills isn't clear. For all the talk about the Black-and-Red's revamped back line, outside backs Bryan Namoff and Marc Burch looked quite vulnerable to the speed displayed by the likes of Jermaine Hue and Robert Scarlet. As for the attack, Emilio was much too quiet, and United will need more from the reigning MVP to turn Wednesday's successful survival test into a spot in the CCC semifinals.

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