Undermanned because of injuries and playing with only 10 men for 50 minutes, D.C. United fell 2-0 to Costa Rican champion Deportivo Saprissa at RFK Stadium on Tuesday night. It was a disastrous start for United in the CONCACAF Champions League and left it down three points in Group A.
"Credit our guys, we didn't stop fighting short-handed, and we could have tied up the game but their keeper made some key saves," United coach Tom Soehn said.
Saprissa scored its goals by capitalizing on defensive errors. United had some legitimate scoring chances, but could not get back into the game thanks to Saprissa goalie Keilor Navas' impressive efforts.
In international competitions, the philosophy is to win at home and a tie on the road. This was far from how United wanted to start an event that guarantees six games in group play. United has three difficult upcoming road games in Central America and Mexico. No MLS team has won at Saprissa's venue in four attempts.
Even if United was at full-strength, Saprissa would have presented a formidable challenge. Along with Cruz Azul of Mexico, Saprissa entered the tournament as a favorite to advance from the group.
United goalie Zach Wells, making his first start in seven games for the injured Louis Crayton, started the night off with an excellent save on Randall Porras' powerful strike.
But Wells could do little to stop Saprissa's first goal in the 32nd minute. United defender Devon McTavish failed to clear the ball away from Alejandro Alpizar, who poked the ball into Walter Centeno's path. Approaching the top of the 18-yard box, Centeno placed the ball into the far low corner of the net past the diving Wells.
Three minutes later, McTavish tackled Alexander Robinson while he was out of play and was ejected from the game. McTavish's red card left United's defense at the mercy of Saprissa's fluid attack.
"The game turned different, and we had more space after that,"Saprissa coach Jeaustin Campos said.
Saprissa sealed United's fate in the 52nd minute. United defender Marc Burch failed to clear a ball and Jorge Arrieta pounced on it. Arrieta, who set himself up with a strong run, fired a blistering shot from 20 yards out into top corner of the net. However, United didn't surrender as Burch, Thabiso Khumalo and Clyde Simms all threatened to score. Navas, however, halted them with three pivotal saves.
"It was a difficult match with a man down but all we can do is work hard and try and get a result when we go down there," United midfielder Fred said.
The Champions League features the best 24 teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean. The winner qualifies for next year's FIFA Club World Cup. The top teams in the group advance to next year's knockout stages with the final played in April.