- - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Fabian Espindola doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind. The explosive D.C. United forward plays with brashness that extends to his off-the-field persona. Such intensity isn’t easily bottled up.

After United opened its campaign with a 5-2 loss at Costa Rican club Alajuelense on Thursday in the first leg of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal, Espindola was frank.

“We did a really bad job over there,” Espindola said. “They’re not a great team. It’s just, man, we had a really bad night and made too many mistakes.”

United will play its 2015 home opener Wednesday as the team welcomes Alajuelense to RFK Stadium for the decisive match of the two-game, total-goals series. With a three-goal deficit standing between United and the semifinals, it may be the last time D.C. fans see Espindola play until late April.

Although Espindola is eligible in the Champions League, the 29-year-old will serve a six-game suspension to start the MLS season after shoving an assistant referee upon United’s elimination from the 2014 playoffs.

It’s one of the longest bans in MLS history. The record suspension belongs to former Colorado Rapids midfielder Brian Mullan, who sat out 10 games in 2011 after a rash slide tackle broke the leg of then-Seattle Sounders winger Steve Zakuani. In 2007, Houston Dynamo midfielder Ricardo Clark got nine games for emphatically kicking then-FC Dallas forward Carlos Ruiz.

“For me, it was way too much considering stuff around the league that has happened before with 10-game suspensions — just really bad things,” Espindola said. “And mine is six games just because I did what I did? I think it’s too much — way too much.”

Espindola on Thursday showed off the quality United will be missing. While a scattered defensive performance and rough outing from backup goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra put United in an unenviable hole, Espindola scored a looping header that helped give the MLS side hope.

Now entering his ninth year in MLS, the Argentina native is coming off a debut season with United that saw him reach career highs with 11 goals and nine assists. That production that led United to bring back Espindola as a highly paid “designated player.”

“He’s consistently an impactful player,” coach Ben Olsen said. “He’s never had his option picked up in this league, and I think we showed him a lot of respect when we picked up his option and gave him a DP slot. But I think we’re also very lucky to have him. It’ll be a shame to watch him watch games.”

Espindola’s suspension starts Saturday, when United kicks off its 20th MLS season with a home game against the Montreal Impact — barring, of course, a work stoppage as the league and players union continue to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.

But United isn’t looking ahead. Espindola played with the starters throughout preseason, and his teammates aren’t yet dwelling on how they’ll get by without the club’s 2014 MVP.

“I hadn’t even thought about that,” captain Bobby Boswell said. “Right now, our focus is on Costa Rica and Alajuelense. Once that game is over, our coaches’ job is to prepare us and prep us, and they’ll do a good job I’m sure for Montreal.”

With Espindola’s suspension looming, injuries haven’t been kind to United’s forward corps. Luis Silva is the most logical replacement after scoring 11 goals last season, but he’s sidelined by a soft-tissue injury. Longtime U.S. national team forward Eddie Johnson isn’t an option after missing all of preseason while undergoing undisclosed medical tests.

That leaves Costa Rican veteran Jairo Arrieta and 23-year-old Conor Doyle as the only natural forward options to play alongside Chris Pontius up top.
“We’re going to have to rely on a lot of guys, and it starts this week,” Olsen said. “So we’re already going to be dipping into our depth for the first game of the season.”

If Espindola does want to stay on the field, he knows United must stage a remarkable comeback against Alajuelense and secure passage to the Champions League semifinals. Otherwise, the fiery competitor will be reduced to spectator for the next seven weeks.

“I’ve been focusing only on these games,” Espindola said. “Of course, because of the suspension that’s all I care about right now: the next game, and trying to make [the comeback] happen.”

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