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MLS clubs need to get focused

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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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You can say the referees were atrocious and field conditions were abysmal, but when looking at Major League Soccer’s 0-4 record in this week’s CONCACAF Champions League group stage action, you must not excuse those who share as much blame for the point-less week as anybody.

The MLS teams themselves.

Yes, there were some inexplicable referee decisions, and the Real Salt Lake-Cruz Azul match did finish on a playing surface that looked more like a lagoon than a soccer field, but in all four losses the MLS team had to shoulder a share of the blame.

MLS: June 23-25

 
Thursday, June 23
Home Road
Seattle 4-2 New York Recap
Saturday, June 25
Home Road
DC United 2-2 Houston Recap
San Jose 0-0 LA Galaxy Recap
Philadelphia 3-2 Chivas USA Recap
FC Dallas 4-0 Portland Recap
Sporting KC 2-1 Vancouver Recap
Real Salt Lake 3-1 Toronto Recap
Sunday, June 26
Home Road
Chicago 1-1 New York  
Seattle 2-1 New England Recap
Columbus 4-1 Colorado  
MLS Scores | Table | Fixtures
 

Toronto FC and the Columbus Crew fielded weak lineups and RSL squandered a two-goal lead with less than five minutes left in regulation. As for the Seattle Sounders? They were simply outplayed at home before a crowd that deserved a better effort performance from the home side.

There is no debating that the referees in CONCACAF are unpredictable at best, and at worst game-ruining awful, but this week the results were as much about MLS shortcomings as they were about refereeing ineptitude.

Take Real Salt Lake, which has lost just once in its past 16 MLS matches and is arguably the strongest team in the league right now. RSL came out strongly and pushed Cruz Azul to the brink, but failed to deliver the killer blow before bunkering down too soon and giving Cruz Azul hope that a comeback was possible.

Yes, you can argue that RSL was playing without all-star defender Jamison Olave, but that doesn’t excuse the late-game meltdown the defending MLS champions suffered. There’s no excuse for surrendering four goals late in a match. No excuse at all.

Columbus fell victim to its own last-second goal, and much like RSL, it came as a result of poor defending and a terrible clearance attempt. Ultimately, Columbus paid the price for packing its defense too soon and allowing Santos Laguna to throw numbers forward in search of a winner.

The Crew can certainly point to the mysteriously disallowed goal scored by Andy Iro and question the fairness of the decision (the goal was erased because assist man Emilio Renteria re-entered the field with an un-numbered jersey, despite the fact the match’s fourth official let him back on the field). As much of a head-scratcher as that decision is, the fact remains Crew head coach Robert Warzycha made the decision to field a less than full-strength team missing its best attacking player (Guillermo Barros Schelotto) and best defender (Chad Marshall).

Yes, Columbus has a busy schedule coming up, including a match against red-hot FC Dallas on Saturday and a looming U.S. Open Cup match against D.C. United, but the Crew had a chance to go to Mexico with a full-strength team and give itself a chance to score a vital road win and start 2-0 in the Champions League group stage. Instead, Columbus went to Mexico hoping for a point and came back empty-handed.

Toronto FC was in a similar situation, though you can understand the Canadian club’s situation a bit more. TFC has never made the MLS playoffs, and in Canada that would mean much more than some success in a little-known regional tournament. So Preki did what he thought was right and rested his key players.

So why should TFC shoulder some of the burden for Tuesday’s loss? Regardless of the circumstances the team faces in MLS, Toronto made the decision to field a weak squad against a beatable opponent in CONCACAF Champions League. Yes, the referee issued a pair of questionable red cards, and penalized TFC far more regularly than Arabe Unido, but the reality is Arabe Unido was outplaying a makeshift TFC lineup and looked like the better side before a red card ever flashed.

As for Seattle, which saw more than 20,000 fans fill Qwest Field for the second largest crowd to watch a CONCACAF Champions League match on American soil, the Sounders succumbed to bad defensive miscues and ultimately lost to a better-prepared opponent. There was a questionable offside call that might have changed the score-line but it’s hard to imagine anybody outside of Seattle believing the better and more deserving team didn’t win on Wednesday. Monterrey played good soccer and took the three points. No excuses about weak lineups or awful refs. The MLS team played worse and lost.

The 0-4 week has to be disheartening for MLS teams, but MLS itself shoulders part of the blame because teams lack the depth they need to compete on two fronts (while also apparently lacking the incentives to take the competition more seriously). Roster depth and strength is already being addressed with recent rules changes allowing MLS teams to boost their squads with high-priced talent, but we may not see the real benefits of those changes until the 2011 Champions League.

Yes, help may be on the way, but for now MLS teams need to stop looking for excuses and need to focus on controlling what they can control. Finishing chances when they come and closing out games with strong defense. Didn’t they learn anything from watching the U.S. national team this summer? That was a team that overcame terrible officiating left and right to get the results they needed and win a group few could have expected them to win. Americans have a reputation for rising up to overcome adversity. Unfortunately, this trait was sorely lacking this week in the Champions League.

This week isn’t the end of the world for MLS teams in CONCACAF Champions League. It’s one week, one bad week, but the sooner MLS teams accept their share of the blame for this week’s disappointment, the sooner they will be able to start turning things around.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.

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