MLS wins in CONCACAF Champions League can ease U.S. toxicity
For all the talk about MLS teams breaking new ground in the CONCACAF Champions League, this year's semifinal round has a ring of familiarity to it. For the third time in the last six tournaments, the final four will feature MLS teams going up against Liga MX opposition.
Granted, the journey for MLS teams has witnessed some firsts in 2018. The New York Red Bulls took both legs from Club Tijuana to win 5-1 on aggregate, the first time that feat had been achieved against a Liga MX club. Toronto FC defeated reigning Liga MX champions UANL Tigres by virtue of the away goals rule, bucking the rule of thumb that says if you hope to survive the second leg on the road, you better have a multi-goal cushion from the first encounter.
Given the toxicity surrounding the game in the U.S. at present, from the men's World Cup qualifying failure to a highly contentious election for U.S. Soccer Federation president, the sight of two MLS teams beating Liga MX opposition on the way to the CCL semis (even if one of them is based in Canada) is a badly needed dose of positivity.
Yet Tuesday's pats on the back gave way to some harsh realities for MLS on Wednesday. The Seattle Sounders were in position to make it an MLS trifecta but succumbed to C.D. Guadalajara 3-0 in the second leg for a 3-1 aggregate defeat. For all the progress MLS teams have made in terms of depth, it was asking too much of a team to survive losing the likes of Nicolas Lodeiro, Chad Marshall, Will Bruin, Jordan Morris and Victor Rodriguez to injury.
That said, Seattle's performance was still hugely disappointing, one that was reminiscent of the dud it turned in during last year's MLS Cup final against Toronto. While pass completion percentage is a statistic that requires context, the Sounders managed to complete just 55.5 percent of its passes against Chivas. That's brutal in any game. The percentage was under 50 percent well into the second half and paradoxically, Seattle was worse in the defending half than it was at the attacking end. Yes it's still early in the campaign, but Seattle's injured players -- aside from Morris, who is out for the season -- can't return soon enough.
So once again it's MLS vs. Liga MX in each semifinal, and the onus is on the Red Bulls and TFC to break through to the final.
Winning the competition would be a first for an MLS team since CONCACAF's continental club championship reverted to a home-and-away format back in 2002 but past history doesn't bode well. In 2013, the LA Galaxy and the Sounders were up against Monterrey and Santos Laguna respectively. While the scorelines were close -- the Sounders fell 2-1 on aggregate while the Galaxy were beaten 3-1 over two legs -- defeat in the opening and home leg for both the Galaxy and the Sounders gave an air of inevitability over the proceedings.
Last year, FC Dallas was undone by a stoppage time goal from Pachuca's Hirving "Chucky" Lozano to fall 4-3 on aggregate. The Vancouver Whitecaps were beaten in both legs by Tigres.
Yet neither Toronto nor New York is cowering in the face of that league-wide track record. Toronto remains the strongest team in MLS history and its victory over Tigres, while playing far short of its best, is testament to TFC's quality. Its depth was on display as well, as not even the losses due to injury of defenders Justin Morrow and Chris Mavinga were enough to sidetrack the Reds in the second leg, and Victor Vasquez was limited to just 26 minutes over the two games.
Yet TFC is faced with another heavyweight matchup, this time against Club America. Las Aguilas are unbeaten through 11 rounds of the Torneo Clausura and cruised past Panamanian side Tauro FC 7-1 on aggregate in the quarterfinals, allowing manager Miguel Herrera to rest some players. It features some players familiar to fans north of the border, like forward Oribe Peralta and Paul Aguilar along with former France international Jeremy Menez.
On paper the Red Bulls have the easier matchup as Chivas currently lie 15th in the league standings, but Guadalajara had enough talent to get past Seattle. They figure to get stronger if striker Alan Pulido can recover from the injury that kept him out of the second leg.
It's an opportunity for both teams to raise their profile by securing continental supremacy, and the same is true for the managers.
Greg Vanney took over the TFC job in 2014 without any previous head coaching experience. Jesse Marsch endured one chaotic season with the Montreal Impact before arriving at the Red Bulls in 2015. Both have succeeded and won silverware while carefully constructing their sides. Claiming this particular prize could come at an opportune time with the managerial job for the U.S. men's national team still open.
Club America and Chivas stand in their collective way and the coming weeks will determine if a familiar matchup of MLS vs. Liga MX will yield a most unfamiliar result.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.