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MLS's struggles in CONCACAF Champions League show league needs improvement
1:20 | Planet Futbol
MLS's struggles in CONCACAF Champions League show league needs improvement
Wednesday April 27th, 2016

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A day before he might or might not play in the CONCACAF Champions League decider at the Estadio Azteca, Ventura Alvarado shared a quick anecdote about a reporter who asked this week whether he was nervous about the prospect of appearing on such a significant stage.

“No, I’ve played in finals already,” Alvarado responded.

“But you’re a young guy,” the reporter argued.

Speaking to SI.com on Tuesday, Alvarado explained that, naturally, players can be a bit more anxious as the biggest games approach. “But I feel comfortable with finals, especially games like that when you get more nervous,” he stressed. “I like it. I feel good with those kind of games.”

The unnamed journalist was talking to a 23-year-old defender who’s started only four of Club América’s 15 Liga MX matches this season. And three of those starts came in January. But that 23-year-old defender was answering as a fourth-year pro who’s already appeared in, and won, league and continental finals. The Arizona-born Alvarado has played for CONCACAF’s most decorated team at the Club World Cup and for his favored country at the Gold Cup.

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He understands pressure. But he also knows what it’s like to be left out or left behind. That’s the potential and the price that comes with playing for América, which is 90 minutes away from claiming a record seventh (and second straight) CONCACAF title. Las Águilas lead Tigres UANL, 2-0 on aggregate, heading into Wednesday evening’s second leg in Mexico City (9:30 p.m. ET; Fox Sports 2, UniMas, Univision Deportes).

“It’s kind of like I’m frustrated, but I’m comfortable,” Alvarado said. “I want to play, but I’m not mad at the coaches or with the players if I don’t play. It’s América. There are great players. It’s real hard to play here and when young players come up into it, it’s really hard.”

Alvarado left his Phoenix home at 13, played at Pachuca’s academy and then joined América in 2008. He watched as the club won its 11th Liga MX title in the spring of 2013 and then started both games of the 2014 Apertura finals as América claimed its 12th. Four months later, he helped his team beat the Montreal Impact and win the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League. But on a squad featuring the likes of Paul Aguilar, Pablo Aguilar, Miguel Samudio and Paolo Goltz, past contributions don’t necessarily lead to additional opportunities. By last fall, Alvarado was playing sparingly. A January return to the lineup didn’t last, and by the time last week’s CCL final opener rolled around, he hadn’t started a game in nearly three months.

“We’ve got to be patient. Ventura Alvarado is not playing and maybe there’s a reason for it,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said recently in a U.S. Soccer Q&A.

An injury to right back Paul Aguilar opened the door.

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Alvarado typically is a center back, but he said he’s comfortable on the flank as well. And he looked the part last week inside Tigres’ raucous Estadio Universitario, where América shut down the reigning Liga MX champs and played defend-and-counter to perfection. Alvarado looked good and made his case, but his awkward chested clearance three days later proved to be a key part of the buildup to the only goal in a 1-0 Liga MX loss to Toluca.

The margin for error at América is thin, and Alvarado’s participation in Wednesday’s CCL decider likely depends on Aguilar’s health.

“I’m probably starting, depending on how he is. We don’t know yet,” Alvarado said Tuesday.

Even if Alvarado doesn’t play, he said he’ll feel good about contributing to a potential CCL title. América wants badly to get back to the Club World Cup, where it faltered and finished fifth last year. Alvarado wants another crack at the big stage as well. He knows América is the sort of club that can get him there. But he also knows he may be just as likely to be watching from the bench. That’s the dilemma he faces. A smaller club almost surely means more minutes. But it also would represent a dimmer spotlight.

His contract with América runs until the summer of 2017.

“I have my moments that I want to leave and go to another club and play, but I also love being here, especially because it’s a big club and I’ll get noticed more playing here than playing at another team,” Alvarado said. “It’s hard to think about because I also want to play, and I want to play with the national team and if I don’t play that much over here, I think I don’t get the same respect over there [with the U.S.]. If I don’t play here, I’m not going to be playing there.”

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Alvarado was a surprise starter in central defense at last summer’s Gold Cup alongside another young center back, John Brooks. Klinsmann praised the pair and said Alvarado’s technique was so good that he might even make a decent midfielder. But the back four, and the team as a whole, never really found its rhythm and Alvarado had a couple of rough moments during the group stage. Although Alvarado appeared to get more comfortable in the knockout rounds, Klinsmann declared following the tournament that the competition at center back was re-opened.

“It was a learning experience, and it came pretty fast for me,” Alvarado said. “I was just starting to play with América and then with the national team. It felt good with John. We still have stuff to correct, but I think we’re young and we might have a good future in front of us. I think Jurgen gives us that confidence.”

Alvarado remains on Klinsmann’s radar and was called into camp for the World Cup qualifiers in November and March, but he hasn’t taken the field in a U.S. jersey since an October friendly against Costa Rica. When the U.S. gathers next month to prepare for the Copa América Centenario, it will have been seven months since Alvarado was capped.

He said Klinsmann has urged him to compete for more minutes in Mexico while improving on his fitness and communication. One can be tough to accomplish without the other, leaving the rare opportunities Alvarado gets to show his stuff all the more important. And it can’t get much bigger for the player or his club than Wednesday's final. 

“I hope I get the chance to play, and if I don’t, I’ll keep working to get a chance, even if it’s the last couple of minutes. If I do things right, it’ll give a good reason to the coach [to consider me],” he said. “I think it’s super-important for my career to get a call-up [for Copa América] and I know I’m on the edge and I don’t know if I’ll go. If I start playing and start doing things right, I might have a good chance of going. But first, I have to play here.”

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