MLS is staring face-to-face with yet another Concacaf Champions League debacle.
All four MLS teams lost the first legs of their CCL quarterfinal matchups this week, and only one has a semi-favorable chance of going through as the league's struggle in the competition continues.
The Houston Dynamo and New York Red Bulls both failed to protect their home fields, dropping 2-0 decisions to Liga MX powers Tigres UANL and Santos Laguna, respectively, and requiring two-goals win in Mexico to at least have the chance at pushing their ties to extra time. Houston, in particular, let a favorable result get away, conceding in the 78th and 81st minutes after holding the Mexican juggernaut at bay. The Red Bulls, meanwhile, failed to capitalize on early opportunities before succumbing to a pair of strikes on either side of halftime to put a dent in their chances.
Reigning MLS champion and king of ambition Atlanta United, which bounced back from a first-leg deficit in the round of 16 only to put on a masterful showing in the second leg to advance, will need an even greater comeback against a tougher opponent. After folding to a 3-0 defeat vs. Monterrey, Atlanta's chances certainly look bleak.
Losing to Monterrey in Mexico is no travesty. Failing to close out the game and conceding twice to Dorlan Pabon and Jesus Gallardo in the final 10 minutes to effectively end the tie most certainly is.
"If we could've gotten out of here 1-0, it would've been a good result for us, but the last 15 minutes wasn't good enough," Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst said following Wednesday night's loss.
The only one with a semi-positive outlook is Sporting Kansas City–and that's after a first-leg defeat. Ilie Sanchez's penalty netted a key away goal in a 2-1 defeat to Panamanian upstart Independiente, which has emerged as the best story of this competition (at least from the neutral standpoint). After humbling Toronto FC in the last 16, Independiente carries the slight advantage going into Children's Mercy Park for next week's second leg.
SKC will say that it rotated its squad, leaving numerous first-choice players on the bench in a strategic move, and that's true. But that's a risk the club chose to make, perhaps underestimating its competition or instead chosing to believe in the depth Peter Vermes has cultivated this winter. Whether that decision will pay off in the second leg remains to be seen. If it doesn't, MLS runs the risk of not just failing to win the CCL again, but not having any club even reach the semifinals for the third time in six seasons.
MLS has taken strides to give its teams the tools to compete on the Concacaf level, and while all the factors in play are not working in those teams' favor–the timing of the competition first and foremost–and it's up to the individual clubs to choose what they prioritize, the grace period for excuses is surely running thin.