Gomez has still got it...and so does Luciano Emilio -- Christian Gomez started the scoring tonight, for D.C. United, with a fantastic strike from beyond the edge of the 18-yard penalty area box, about 28 yards from goal. First, he made his own space with a great feint forward, before pulling the ball back and blasting a shot to the far upper corner of the goal, beyond the Olimpia goalie's reach. This got United off to a great start, in its CONCACAF Champions Cup series against CD Olimpia (Honduras). Gomez made an even more spectacular play a minute later with an airborne side volley over the defense that found Emilio. Unfortunately, the former Olimpia star, Emilio, was offsides for United. Olimpia went back on the attack, and a cross found the head of a charging Olimpia player, who headed it past Troy Perkins to knot the score at 1-1.
Playing in his first game for United, Emilio put United ahead, just before halftime. Josh Gros delivered an accurate, professional grass-cutting crossing pass, and Emilio got the position on the defender to receive the pass. The finishing touch from Emilio was a thing of beauty -- a magical first-time touch with his back heel, that was impossible to save.
Gomez tallied a second time, again from just outside the box, as he gathered a loose ball and struck a well-placed shot to the corner, beyond the reach of the diving goalie. That gave United a 3-1 lead on the road, a virtually insurmountable lead in the home and home series -- but United wasn't done scoring. The final goal came when Ben Olsen's well-taken corner found the head of Facundo Erpen who directed the ball inside the far post, sealing a stunning 4-1 win for the MLS side.
One other United stalwart bears mentioning: Troy Perkins, who still looks terrific in the air -- apparently Olimpia didn't really study films. You're not going to beat Perkins with those long high crosses into the area. He eats those for dinner.
It certainly wasn't all biscuits and gravy for United, who found themselves chasing Olimpia's attack far too often for comfort. While United gained the victory based on several plays of individual brilliance, Olimpia was the fitter side. In the first half, they were probably the better side, overall. On Olimpia's goal, and on several other rushes, the right side of the United defense looked especially vulnerable. Clyde Simms was beaten to the ball, on the goal, but Bobby Boswell also allowed too much space, making the cross possible. This could be a lack of fitness, or a sign of more lasting troubles for United, in the season ahead.
My overall assessment and prognosis? United may have some weaknesses on defense and in the midfield, but it looks as if United could be a very exciting team to watch on the offensive end. United had the MLS' best two-man combination last year, but the Revolution had the best three-man attack, with Twellman, Dempsey and Joseph. In the conference championship, that combination made the Revolution the more dangerous finishers, as they beat United 1-0. This year, the Revs will not have Dempsey, who is playing at Fulham, and United has added Emilio. In fact, this season, the best two-man combo honors may yet be claimed by the Galaxy, when Beckham joins Landon Donovan in late June. The best three-man attack, undoubtedly, will belong to D.C. United.
If they can stay healthy, United should avoid last year's late-season collapse. A return appearance in the MLS Cup is a strong possibility. That would be a terrific present for United fans, as well as a good outcome for the league, since those United fans will fill RFK for the Cup final. United looks as if it should be regarded as a strong contender in its other competitions, which include the CONCACAF Champions Cup (tonight's game was United's first in this year's event), the SuperLiga, and the U.S. Open Cup. Given that the MLS Cup final will be in RFK, winning that title would mean the most.
Winning the Champions Cup would be an incredible result, too. That would qualify D.C. United to play in the World Club Championship, featuring the top club sides from each region. In the long run, that could make United an attractive club for foreign stars to join. It would also be a positive development for the MLS, in its struggle to gain international respect. Even a second-place finish would be significant, as it would qualify United to play in the Copa Sudamericana, which would be an excellent vehicle to market United as a destination for South American players.
A word or two about the crowd and the tournament: This was as spirited and vocal a crowd as I've ever heard. In the first half, the Honduran fans were in full-throat and indomitable, as they sang almost without pause. Even down 4-1, the crowd continued to sing and dance to the beating drums. This was an entertaining game to watch, but the fans made a huge contribution to the excitement and atmosphere.
This was an enormous contrast to the afternoon game in Costa Rica. It's foolish to compare an afternoon weekday tilt with an evening game, not to mention that the stadium in Tegucigalpa is several times larger than the one in Puntarenas. I think, though, that there is a taste developing among Olimpia's faithful for these contests against MLS sides. They lost to United in 1999, and lost in the final the next year, to the L.A. Galaxy. They were also beaten by San Jose in 2002. No doubt, they're hungry to win one, though they will have to wait at least another year.
With the great result and the live TV coverage tonight, I expect a great turnout next Thursday evening, for the return match at RFK. Given that United is already up 4-1, United fans can also look forward to a spot in the tournament semifinal round, which will begin on March 15th, at RFK, against either Chivas, Guadalajara or W-Connection (Trinidad). Although Chivas was heavily favored, W-Connection rallied from behind while playing with only ten men, to win 2-1 in Trinidad.
After tonight's win, it is fair for D.C. to look ahead to the semifinals. Should they win there, the tournament finals would begin at RFK. The schedule calls for that game to be played on April 19th, if I understand the CONCACAF schedule format. I wonder if that's realistic, since the Nationals are scheduled to play an afternoon game that day at RFK. Anyway, I'm sure that picture would become clear should United advance to the final. If Chivas rallies next Wednesday, that task will become much tougher. I'll be hoping for W-Connection to hold on.
In 2005, UNAM Pumas beat both Olimpia and D.C United, before losing to the Costa Rican Deportivo Saprissa. D.C.'s 5-0 loss in Mexico to Pumas remains the worst defeat in team history. Today, was a good start along the road to getting past that dispiriting defeat. With one of the most convincing wins in the club's history, United's off to a dream start. For tonight, United's fans are entitled to keep dreaming.