The Concacaf Champions League enters the knockout rounds this week – and all four quarter-finals feature MLS sides up against Mexican opposition.
Such a line-up ought to deliver a referendum on regional superiority, but for the very significant fact that the MLS season is still a couple of weeks from kick off, while the Mexican teams who traditionally dominate the competition are seven games into theirs.
Not that that should suggest that the US teams would dominate a better timed set of tournament dates. DC United, LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, and Seattle Sounders all have their issues coming into the quarter-finals – RSL missed the 2015 MLS playoffs altogether and the other three underwhelmed in the postseason. And while the gap between Mexican and US and Canadian club soccer might be closing in places, the general squad depth of most top Mexican teams is still generally too much for MLS opposition when the tournament reaches this stage. It ought to be no different this year.
MLS management like to talk of becoming a top 10 global league by 2022, and one of the most obvious benchmarks would appear to be Champions League success against their strongest regional rivals from Liga MX.
But despite some valiant near misses, including RSL in 2011 and Montreal last year, by the time the round of eight comes round, the feeling watching MLS teams struggle to shake off their ring rust is generally a frustrating one of “Right team, wrong time”.
Perhaps that could be more completely expressed as “Right team, wrong time, wrong line-up.” The personnel carrying MLS hopes are likely to be significantly transformed from the line-ups that earned their teams the right to play in the tournament in the first place. The MLS quartet are all here on the basis of their achievements in the 2014 season, since when they have been through a full season and two off-seasons of personnel turnover.
There has been talk of a scheduling change for the tournament, but within the current power vacuum that has followed the Fifa scandal, it’s hard to see where the will to prioritize that is going to come from. So for now this traditional awkward hurdle for MLS sides – North America’s own version of “the round of Arsenal” – remains intact.
So who among the MLS sides has the best chance to advance?
Queretaro v DC United
Tues 8pm ET (FS1, Sportsnet World)
Estadio La Corregidora, Queretaro, Mexico
It’s all relative, but on paper DC look to have got the kindest draw of the four MLS sides: bringing a Queretaro side struggling in Liga MX back to Washington for the second leg.
But DC badly ran out of steam in the MLS season, then playoffs – being eliminated by the New York Red Bulls for the second year running – and they have lost some crucial defensive components in the off-season. Perry Kitchen turned down a contract to leave a hole in defensive midfield, and there’s no Davy Arnaud, either. Former LA Galaxy man Marcelo Sarvas is a welcome addition in that part of the field, though under the circumstances looks to be plugging a hole rather than improving the team.
And of course there’s the goalkeeping question. Bill Hamid was DC’s best player last year, and won them a lot of points on his own as his year-on-year development in goal continues exponentially. But the US international is out until the summer after a knee operation last month, and DC need a big performance from his deputy Andrew Dykstra.
Where DC may have a wild card is in last week’s signing of Boca Juniors playmaker Luciano Acosta. DC under Ben Olsen are a hard-working rather than inspiring team, but the addition of a creative No10 is an intriguing wrinkle in their approach. Fascinating to see how it works out over the course of the season – but it’s a lot to ask for the Argentinian to immediately turn this series.
Seattle Sounders v Club America
Tues 10 pm ET (FS1, Sportsnet World, Guardian liveblog)
CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Washington
If facing the defending champions wasn’t hard enough, Seattle are doing so during one of their periodic states of flux. They looked out on their feet at the end of last season, and the mandate for change was already there even before the shock news last week that Obafemi Martins is on his way to China.
It was news that put the signing of Jordan Morris into rather stark perspective. When Morris made his decision to turn down a Werder Bremen contract in favor of his hometown club, Seattle fans and media were quick to point out that with the likes of Martins and Dempsey leading the line, Morris should expect a tough apprenticeship competing for his place. He’ll still face a tough apprenticeship – but now it comes with an expectation of delivering immediately in place of Martins.
It’s little comfort that Club America will be facing a long flight to Seattle on the back of a wild 3-3 Clasico Joven against Cruz Azul on Saturday night (a game that saw forward Oribe Peralta red carded and Club America give up a 3-1 lead to an equalizer in injury time). It’s true that Las Aguilasare facing some fixture congestion, but they’re doing so with all their key players from the campaign so far still in place. No such luck for Seattle.
Real Salt Lake v Tigres UANL
Wed 8pm ET (FS2)
Estadio Universitario, Nuevo Leon, Mexico
2015 was a difficult year for Real Salt Lake. The remnants of the side that had got to within a game of winning the tournament in 2011 were still just about there – Kyle Beckerman continues to be the midfield fulcrum, Javier Morales is still the creator, and Nick Rimando continues to be one of the league’s finest shot-stoppers, but RSL generally looked like a side who were decidedly at the end of a cycle. Their usual consistency in the league deserted them, and they missed the playoffs.
But it became apparent that RSL were focusing on the Champions League as they sought a first knockout appearance in the competition since that 2011 run. They got it – winning Group G with 10 points, to set up a meeting with the 2015 Liga MX Apertura champions Tigres.
And in the off-season RSL turned back the clock — the experiment with forward Sebastian Jaime having ended with a mutually unsatisfactory parting of the ways, RSL turned to their former forward Yura Movsisyan, on loan from Spartak Moscow, in the hope he could reprise the type of form that once made him a fan favorite.
Movsisyan is by far the most significant arrival of the off-season, though there’s another throwback to the team’s heyday in Chris Wingert arriving on waivers from NYC FC. He may start getting RSL the goals they were sorely missing at times last year, but it’s a long shot he’ll do so against a solid Tigres team, and especially in a first leg on the road for the MLS side.
LA Galaxy v Santos Laguna
Wed 10pm ET (FS1)
StubHub Center, Carson, California
The Galaxy have been the big movers of the MLS off-season. It’s easy to look at the arrivals of Nigel De Jong and Ashely Cole and consider that a stacked Galaxy team already boasting Robbie Keane, Gio dos Santos and Steven Gerrard just got even deeper, but as Bruce Arena well knows it’s how you counter-balance the particular qualities of your designated and star players that makes for success in MLS, and the turnover has not been without risk.
The Galaxy allowed Omar Gonzalez, the mainstay of the defense, to go to Pachuca, while midfielder Juninho also left for Mexico – traveling just across the border to team up with Tijuana. The case for Gonzalez leaving is perhaps easier made. LA’s defense was poor by their standards last year, and with Gonzalez slipping in the national team set-up, his star was on the wane. This off-season represented a chance to recoup some value for him.
Juninho, however, had been a key part of the Galaxy midfield since the David Beckham days – and it was his deployment alongside Beckham that finally freed the Englishman to do his best work in an LA shirt. Something similar was anticipated with the arrival of Gerrard last year, but instead the two just looked redundant together and it was obvious who would have to give way. Out went Juninho, in came De Jong.
There were other significant signings in defender Jelle Van Damme and former Chivas USA goalkeeper Dan Kennedy, along with league veterans Jeff Larentowicz and the returning Mike Magee. There’s a lot of solid experience in the new-look LA team, and with Gerrard looking to play for just one more year, it looks like a line-up dedicated to winning now rather than building for the future.
Winning right now is the order of the day against Santos Laguna, who have some previous form in tearing apart MLS hopes (Seattle fans still wince at their encounter in the 2012 semi-finals when a narrow first leg lead was overturned in a 6-1 second leg rout).
Not that the Guerreros are in anything like such formidable form – they may be the more match sharp of the two teams, but are currently winless in three in Liga MX play. If LA can overcome their traditional slow start to the year they may see hope of progressing.
This article was written by Graham Parker, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 23rd February 2016 11.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010