The second night of CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal play yielded two more disappointments for MLS.
Once again, the home team failed to win. And once again, the visitor folded late and left itself with a large hill to climb in next week’s deciders. After the opening leg of each home-and-home, aggregate goals series, the Mexican opponent has the edge.
Real Salt Lake started well at reigning Liga MX champ Tigres UANL but yielded two second-half set piece goals and will return to Utah down 2-0 on aggregate. In Wednesday’s nightcap, a revamped LA Galaxy squad was unable to find its attacking rhythm and settled for a 0-0 draw with visiting Santos Laguna.
Here are three thoughts from Wednesday’s games outside Monterrey and Los Angeles:
MLS’s continental championship hopes are in trouble, again
The preseason timing makes it hard and this quarterfinal bracket, which pits four MLS teams against Liga MX opposition, makes it harder. After this week’s matches, only the unexpected would prevent MLS’s CCL drought from continuing at least one more year. LA, RSL, D.C. United and the Seattle Sounders all could be eliminated by the time their regular seasons kick off the first weekend of March.
D.C. and RSL, two teams that had trouble scoring last year, will head home needing to make up two-goal deficits. They’ll have to open the game up, perhaps increasing the likelihood of conceding a backbreaking away goal.
Seattle and LA will have to get the desired results down in Mexico. LA is in better shape thanks to Wednesday’s shutout. A win or score draw in Torreón will give the Galaxy the series. Seattle likely will have to defeat reigning CCL champ Club América in Mexico City. The Sounders would force overtime with a 2-2 tie, be ousted at 1-1 and advance at 3-3 or more.
Only twice in MLS’s 20-year history has a team won a competitive match on Mexican soil. Seattle and FC Dallas each pulled it off in 2011. An MLS side has defeated a Liga MX foe in a home-and-home series only three times. A fourth is far from impossible, but the odds don’t look good at the moment.
One potential advantage that might mitigate the preseason fitness issue: Mexican clubs will have league games this weekend while the MLS teams will have the full week to prepare.
The Galaxy are far from a finished product
This LA team is built to win a sixth MLS Cup. Getting everything humming in time for Santos, a two-time CCL runner-up, was always unlikely. Galaxy GM and coach Bruce Arena continued the bold player acquisition strategy he employed last summer, when he signed Steven Gerrard and Giovani Dos Santos. This winter, he brought in veteran defenders Ashley Cole and Jelle Van Damme and midfield hard man Nigel de Jong. Those three players were among the five Galaxy debutants who started Wednesday at StubHub Center.
It looked like a team playing its first game together. Van Damme was the bright spot. The Belgian was a bit reckless at times. He earned a silly yellow card late in the first half and sent teammate Robbie Rogers to the sideline for treatment following a collision. But he also was mobile, imposing and well positioned on numerous crosses and entry passes. He nearly scored on a first-minute header. Early indications are that he’ll be a solid replacement for the departed Omar Gonzalez.
Ahead of him, Gerrard and De Jong played together for the first time and stayed quite conservative. Gerrard, especially, failed to add much going forward. Up top, Robbie Keane didn’t see much of the ball and Dos Santos probably could have done better with a 41st minute chance that followed a lovely pass from Gyasi Zardes and a nice turn on Santos defender Carlos Izquierdóz. Cole and Rogers got forward on occasion (Cole came close to scoring on a 28th-minute volley) but overall, the attack sputtered. Chemistry will take some time to establish.
LA was fortunate not to fall behind in the second half, as Santos created a several good chances. Ultimately, a tie was a fair result and indicative of where the Galaxy is at this point in their preparation. But it may not be enough to see them through to the semis.
This is why MLS wants the CCL schedule adjusted
Playing its first competitive game in four months, RSL stood toe-to-toe with Tigres for much of the first half. But the visitors started to wilt during the second and then finally crumbled late. Salt Lake’s 2-0 loss was almost a carbon copy of D.C. United’s defeat at Querétaro on Tuesday. It wasn’t just the score that was similar. Like D.C., RSL wasted a couple of very good opportunities and then wound up ruing those misses as a fitter host found more room to operate in the latter stages (For the game, RSL put five shots on frame compared to three for Tigres).
United yielded the opener on Tuesday in the 71st minute. On Wednesday at UANL’s Estadio Universitario, the first goal came in the 67th. RSL goalie Nick Rimando had saved a penalty kick toward the end of the first half, but there was nothing he could do when caught slightly off his line as José Arturo Rivas’s header rolled past. The goal came off a well-struck free kick by Tigres forward Rafael Sóbis.
Like D.C., RSL would’ve been happy to head into next week’s home decider down a single goal. But like D.C., Salt Lake couldn’t hold on. The game was inching toward its conclusion when Tigres scored on another set piece. This time, a corner kick, a header and a goal-line clearance combined to result in a point-blank finish for winger Jürgen Damm.
Was fatigue or rust to blame for Yura Movsisyan’s 41st-minute shank of an open look? Couldn’t RSL and D.C. had built a cushion by the time their legs became too heavy? Perhaps, but the way this week’s two away games progressed suggests that playing field might be a bit more level if these quarterfinal series kicked off later in the spring or in the fall. RSL and D.C. just weren’t ready to go 90 minutes in those environments. The Mexican teams are seven matches into the domestic campaigns.
Five of the six goals conceded by MLS clubs this week came in the 67th minute or later.