With lacklustre finishing from both sides, the CONCACAF Champions Cup quarter-final first-leg clash between New England Revolution and Liga Deportiva Alajuelense (known simply as La Liga) of Costa Rica ended in a disappointing 0-0 draw. The result will have two-time winners Alajuelense - reigning Central American champions - feeling confident ahead of their return leg on 8 March back home in Llano de Alajuela.
"It was hard to tell who was in their preseason and who wasn't," said New England head coach Steve Nicol, whose Revolution are still weeks away from the start of the 2006 MLS season.
Both teams were having trouble moving the ball and maintaining possession early on in Hamilton, Bermuda. The Revolution, who were forced to play their 'home' leg on the Caribbean island due to wintry weather concerns back in Boston, were counting on US international up-and-comers Clint Dempsey, Taylor Twellman and Pat Noonan to get things going against the Costa Ricans and their evergreen danger-man Rolando Fonseca.
Without suspended top scorer Minor Diaz, Fonseca - Costa Rica's all-time top scorer with over 100 caps - looked to have the sole charge of putting the ball in the net for the Tico side. But having their fair share of trouble getting goals in the Costa Rican Clausura, La Liga were always going to be nervy in attack.
The first corner of the game nearly saw Revolution poacher Twellman - who has four goals for the USA in two recent friendlies - unlock the Alajuelense defence with a header at the back post in the tenth minute. But the Tico rearguard stood firm as the fractured first half continued on without much rhythm.
Christian Montero's free-kick just minutes later looked like a good chance for the Central Americans, but the swerving strike from distance soared high and wide of Matt Reis' goal to a sigh of relief from head coach Steve Nicol on the New England bench.
Although the Revs - playing in an unfamiliar 4-4-2 - had a good amount of possession, La Liga were carving out the more dangerous chances. A shot from Fonseca, who took the ball off the normally solid Joe Franchino in the 15th minute, went fizzing past Reis' post as Alajuelense looked to be taking the initiative. Currently in their 'off season' and not having played a competitive game since November 2005, the Revolution - despite their bevy of US internationals on active duty - looked to be wearing their lack of match fitness as the first half wore on.
But some good flank work from recent signing and New Zealand international Tony Lockhead - playing in his competitive debut - had the 'home' side looking dangerous on the break. And after a defensive mix-up, he should have made it 1-0 in the 24th minute. Collecting a low cross from Noonan that Dempsey failed to reach, the New Zealander had the whole net to shoot at, but somehow pushed it agonisingly into the side netting.
The Revolution - who recently thrashed Bermuda's U-20 national team (8-0) and the island's senior side (3-0) - were finding Alajuelense, nine weeks deep into their Clausura campaign, a much tougher nut to crack as both sides went into the locker-room tangled at nil-all.
The Revs came out with a new determination early in the second half and Twellman nearly hit the target with a sizzler in the opening moments. But the try from distance sailed just over. Only seconds later, Noonan hammered his full volley over the bar after some neat work from Andy Dorman.
The Americans picked up the pace significantly from their lacklustre form in the first half, pressing the issue as the second period wore on. But they were unable to finish off their chances and created some nervy minutes as the clock ticked down.
Another blow saw Noonan forced off the pitch with ten minutes to go after appearing to have injured his hamstring. As the minutes ticked away, the Costa Ricans looked pleased enough with the scoreline, happy to take the 0-0 draw home to their Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto en el Llano de Alajuela on 8 March.
"Overall I was happy with the performance. We had some chances, particularly in the second half, which we didn't put away but at this stage of the season I can't be too upset with this result," Revolution boss Nicol remarked after the match.
Alajuelense's recently installed coach Rolando Villalobos was pleased as well, considering the job half-done. "We have done what we came here to do," the former Costa Rica assistant to Bora Milutinovic said after the game. "It was a very physical game and both sides worked very hard. Away from home it is always difficult but we are happy to draw the game and go back to Costa Rica to be more attacking in the second leg and put them under more pressure at home."