- - Monday, February 22, 2016

For D.C. United and MLS alike, the CONCACAF Champions League represents a white whale.

United is the most decorated club in league history, with honors including four MLS Cup titles and three U.S. Open Cup triumphs. But, while United won the since-disbanded CONCACAF Champions Cup in 1998, the more arduous Champions League has proved elusive.

In fact, no MLS team has won the Champions League since the tournament — featuring the top teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean — was launched in 2008.

“CONCACAF is a stage,” United coach Ben Olsen said, “and it shows growth if we can start to do well in tournaments like this.”

Although United won the Champions Cup in 1998 by winning three games at RFK Stadium, the path to the Champions League title comprises 10 matches split between the comforts of home and draining road trips.

United kicks off its 2016 campaign on the road with a Champions League quarterfinal first leg against Mexican club Queretaro on Tuesday. While United doesn’t open MLS play until March 6, Queretaro has been in action since the Liga MX campaign kicked off on Jan. 8.

“It’s tough to not only get fit in this short amount of time [but] to be 90-minutes fit against a Mexican team who is already flying,” Olsen said. “Then you add new pieces, so we’re going to need a little luck. We’re going to need some guys to jell quicker than usual and for some guys to gut out minutes.”

A lack of sharpness was United’s undoing last year, when the team opened 2015 with a 5-2 loss to Costa Rican club Alajuelense in the first leg of a two-game, total-goals series. The early stages of that game were particularly brutal for United, which allowed three goals in the first 27 minutes.

Ultimately, a 2-1 win at RFK Stadium a week later wasn’t enough to overcome the sizable deficit. Now, United has a better idea of the task at hand as it again travels to Latin America to navigate an in-season opponent and hostile atmosphere.

“It’s [important] having the experience of walking into it knowing what it’s all about,” goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra said. “We haven’t done any major adjustments. I think right now we’re worried about us, what we’re trying to do and how we want to impose ourselves.”

Added midfielder Markus Halsti: “They’re going to be playing us hard from the beginning. We have to be really compact and play a really good game as a team.”

At nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, Queretaro City offers an altitude challenge that further complicates matters. Yet the odds aren’t completely stacked against United — Queretaro sits just 13th out of 18 teams in Liga MX with a 2-1-4 record, offering its MLS opponent a degree of optimism.

“We’ll have a shot,” Olsen said. “They’re a good team. I wouldn’t say they’re the best Mexican team right now playing and they’re not in the greatest form.”

Expressing regret that he “pushed the gas too much” last preseason, Olsen took a more measured approach in preparing his team for its opener against Queretaro. But there was a sense of urgency as United looked to integrate a slew of offseason acquisitions, including pricey Argentine playmaker Luciano Acosta.

Although hosting the second march is considered a marginal advantage in aggregate series, United knows all too well how a lackluster first leg can negate that edge.

Queretaro is a great team and it’s going to be super difficult over there,” forward Fabian Espindola said. “We’ve got to get a good result and finish the job here at home.”

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