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Promising start for MLS teams in Champions League group stage


Five things we learned from the first round of CONCACAF Champions League group play, which wrapped up Thursday.

1. Better MLS success: It's too soon to say whether more MLS sides can punch their way past CONCACAF Champions League group stage this year, but the early returns suggest it could happen.

Three of four MLS clubs won on Match Day 1. Toronto, Columbus and Real Salt Lake all made hay in their openers as 16 teams began reaching for the quarterfinals. Seattle's 2-1 loss to Honduran club Marathon late Thursday night was MLS' only hiccup.

Last year two of three MLS clubs crashed out during the group stage. And that was after two other MLS clubs had fallen in the preliminary round. Two years ago, only one of two MLS sides advanced to the group stage, while two others fell during the preliminary round. Total it up, the league is a paltry 2-for-9 in reaching the tournament quarterfinals.

So, can this be the year more than one side finally moves out of the group stage? (This is just the third year for the tournament in its current conception, although the regional competition has been around since 1962.)

Toronto's win was the most impressive. Preki's team put together one of its best overall performances in any competition in a 2-1 victory against Mexican side Cruz Azul at BMO Field. The Cementeros have made two consecutive Champions League finals, and they had yet to concede a goal in four previous matches in this tournament against MLS sides. So, clearly, this one represented major improvement for the top U.S. league, which is desperate for better results.

Cruz Azul coach Enrique Meza had good things to say about the quality of his Canadian hosts, but implied that his players may have underestimated their opposition -- somewhat understandable considering MLS' flimsy history in the tourney. Meza made the choice to rest several starters, which he said was more concession to a busy slate than a show of disrespect.

Tuesday's match in Canada was sandwiched between weekend league matches back in Mexico for Cruz Azul. Team captain Gerardo Torrado and star striker Javier Orozco were among the starters left on the bench, although both came on after the break.

Wins by Columbus (1-0 over Guatemala's Municipal) and Real Salt Lake (2-1 over Panama's Arabe Unido) were also on MLS home grounds.

2. On the other hand: It's awful early. The group stage matches go on through October; each MLS side has five contests remaining. And the three winning MLS clubs also happen to be three of the league's best at making their stadiums really uncomfortable places for visitors.

Consider that Toronto's only home loss this year has come in a friendly against Bolton of the English Premiership. And even that one was in tiebreaker penalty kicks.

RSL has yet to lose at home this year in MLS, boasting a league-best 8-0-3 record and a plus-20 goal difference at lovely Rio Tinto Stadium. Columbus is 8-2-0 at home this season.

So, perhaps the real backslapping around MLS must wait until more of the teams grab points on the road.

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3. First-choice lineups: Preki's side had the previous weekend off, so fielding his first-choice starters was an easy call for the Toronto coach. His only significant change was calling on goalkeeper Jon Conway in place of terrific young starter Stefan Frei. That wasn't exactly a river boat gamble, however, as Conway is a quality 'keeper, having previously been an MLS starter.

The decision to deploy a bulk of their best players wasn't such a no-brainer for three other MLS managers, who rolled out quality lineups nonetheless. Crew coach Robert Warzycha went with his best side with just one exception: veteran backup Andy Gruenebaum was preferred to William Hesmer, the side's usual No. 1. As with Toronto, this wasn't some giant gamble; Gruenebaum has 26 league appearances. Plus, Hesmer has been up and down this year, so Warzycha wasn't losing much in that exchange.

RSL boss Jason Kreis put his best 11 on the field -- and then had to call in his next best off the bench to push past the stubborn visitors from Panama.

Seattle coach Sigi Schmid similarly put most of his best team on the field in Honduras against Marathon. The Sounders even took an early lead, but a foul near goal by Seattle's Tyrone Marshall put the hosts on the spot for the eventual game-winner.

4. Light attendance: MLS officials tell us this tournament is important for establishing credibility. In fact, players, coaches and team officials have talked up the Champions League's significance, pointing to the "tremendous opportunity" of getting out of group play.

But is it really? The tournament, with so little real history here and almost no brand identity, just doesn't resonate with a lot of fans. The hard evidence suggests fans just aren't into it. Not in 2010, anyway.

The best crowd from this week's trio of group stage matches in MLS venues was in Toronto, where 16,862 came out for Tuesday's contest. That's a respectable showing, no doubt. On the other hand, BMO is almost always packed for league contests, so it's telling any time the stands aren't full.

The crowd of just 5,745 in Columbus was well below Crew Stadium's average for MLS contests (13,984). Rio Tinto's stands were similarly bare for RSL's victory against the Panamanians.

5. No easy contests: Gruenebaum was tested several times in Columbus' win over the Guatemalans, including once before Emmanuel Ekpo's 14th-minute game-winner.

Toronto had things mostly under control, but had to work harder against Cruz Azul once Torrado brought his quality and usual physical approach to the match. But it was the MLS champion, Real Salt Lake, that had the toughest time; the little side from Panama made life difficult on Jason Kreis' club.

Even with a man advantage for more than a half, RSL needed a stoppage-time penalty kick to finish off the visitors 2-1. Nor was the match easy on the eyes as the visitors shamefully turned the night into a circus of embellished injuries and other drama created for the sake of delay.

"I think tonight was a microcosm of everything that's wrong with our game," Kreis said afterward. "We've got to come up with a solution in our game where we are not having players laying on the ground for three minutes, having them go off the field, and then come right back on. There must be a simple solution."

Obviously, Seattle had the toughest time. Then again, club officials expected a rough go. So much so that Sounders owners paid for a charter to fly the team into Central America. Apparently the limited routing options from the Pacific Northwest down to San Pedro Sula along the Honduran northern coast (and not particularly near the small country's capital city) made the handsome price of a charter worth it.

New York at Toronto:Rafa Marquez looked like a man on a mission in his Red Bulls debut two weeks ago. But last week he looked more like a man missing, struggling to manage even the simplest of tasks as his team fell at home. So which is it? Which was the aberration? We should know more this week when Hans Backe's Red Bulls attempt to put last week's loss to the Galaxy behind them when they visit Toronto (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET). It's hardly an easy trip, as Preki's team is unbeaten in 10 matches at BMO Field, conceding just five goals. On the other hand, the Red Bulls have been idle since last week's defeat and should be the fresher side; Toronto had extra work with that midweek Champions League date.

Los Angeles at San Jose: Before the Home Depot Center derby (Los Angeles Galaxy vs. fellow HDC tenant Chivas USA), the league's big California rivalry was L.A. against San Jose (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET). It's a matchup that still has some juice, as fans in San Jose haven't forgotten that Landon Donovan chose a Southern California address over his old San Jose stamping grounds during MLS re-entry back in 2005. New Brazilian midfielder Geovanni, San Jose's first designated player, won't yet be available when the teams meet Saturday at Buck Shaw Stadium. But Frank Yallop's team will have Khari Stephenson, the Jamaican international who looked sharp in his Earthquakes debut last week. L.A.'s road to the playoffs is fairly clear. Not so, however, with the Earthquakes, who are in sixth place in the West and desperate to climb in the standings.