Thursday, March 17, 2005

Soccer in the Hinterlands

Almost anyone familiar with professional soccer is aware of the Champions League, the European season-long tournament among the best clubs from all over Europe. The Copa Libertadores is the South American equivalent, and is highly regarded, though it pales compared with the Champions League. In this part of the world, we have the CONCACAF (the Confederation Of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) Champions Cup, or the CCC, a much smaller (and way less prestigious) tournament that few have heard of even here. DC United won it back in 1998, and we're back in it this year, as a result of winning the MLS Cup this year. There were a couple of rounds played last year, but the top 2 US and top 2 Mexican squads were automatically entered into the quarterfinals. With a second 2-1 victory over Harbor View last night in Jamaica (which I listened to on Internet radio), DC United advanced to the semi-finals, to face UNAM Pumas, with the games April 6 in DC and April 13 in Mexico. It's a good start to the year, as the MLS season hasn't even begun (and doesn't until April 2).

So how does the team look (or more accurately to me, sound)? They seem to be in good shape front and at midfield, especially given they're not exactly in mid-season form. Their clear weakness is the defense, which lost its captain and best defender (possibly in all of MLS) to Blackburn of the English Premiere League (where he's starting and has already been declared the coach's best pickup). Good for Ryan Nelsen, bad for United -- the team is looking for someone to anchor the defense, and without that anchor, it'll be hard pressed to advance in the CCC, or be successful in the MLS regular season.

This year success in the CCC could pay very big dividends. In 1998, United's victory resulted in playing the South American champ (Vasco de Gama from Brazil) in the infrequently-played Inter-American Cup, where United surprised everyone by winning (noteworthy for United, a yawn for the South American squad which was returning from playing the European champion). This year, the winner of the CCC is scheduled to play in an end-of-the-year tournament against the champs from the other continents, with over a million dollar payout to the winners. Big stuff indeed, at least to the small-budgeted CONCACAF-region teams!

I could ramble about the team for much longer, but better to stop here so as not to bore those who are only mildly curious. Go United!

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