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MLS clubs aim for tournament success
MLS commissioner Don Garber speaks often about the importance of succeeding in the CONCACAF Champions League. It is, he says, one of the landmarks on the way toward carving out a place among the world's best leagues by 2022.
Although it is far, far too soon to place MLS into that discussion, three teams – Los Angeles, Houston and Seattle – enter this week with a chance to fulfill Garber's wishes for substantial success in this competition.
All three sides created manageable tasks for the second leg with their toil last week. Now they must embrace the challenge ahead on their day of reckoning to validate the league's persistent claims about the substantial improvements achieved over the few several years.
Seattle offers the first and perhaps most surprising chance of success when Tigres visits CenturyLink Field (live, FOX Soccer, Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET). Sigi Schmid's side can count itself fortunate to emerge from Estadio Universitario with only a one-goal deficit after an underwhelming display in San Nicolás de los Garza a week ago, but it still enters the second leg with a decent chance of booking a place in the semifinals.
Success or failure may hinge on Sounders FC's ability to push forward without inviting the Liga MX leaders to expose the ensuing gaps on the counter. Tigres coach Ricardo Ferretti left many of his regulars at home, according to the club's official website, but his delegation still possesses players – including the likes of promising Mexico under-20 starlet Jonathan Espericueta and first-leg goalscorer Alan Pulido – capable of exploiting space provided if Seattle chases the game too earnestly. With the away goals rule in effect (excluding any goals scored in extra time), the home side cannot afford to concede as it vies to overturn its deficit after failing to score in Mexico.
Houston faces the opposite task ahead of a visit to Estadio Corona (live, FOX Soccer, Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET). Dynamo talisman Brad Davis staked his side to a narrow advantage ahead of the trip to Mexico with his late goal at BBVA Compass Stadium last Tuesday, but the clean sheet posted could prove even more crucial as Houston attempts to protect its narrow cushion.
Santos – in stark contrast to Tigres – is expected to field a more formidable outfit on home soil as it bids to repeat the success achieved against MLS foes in the last edition of this competition. Seattle (a 6-1 second leg defeat at this stage) and Toronto FC (a 6-2 second leg setback in the semifinals) both buckled under the pressure of playing a second leg in Torreón. Houston must avoid conceding early – both Seattle and Toronto FC shipped twice in the first half to all but scupper their hopes – and keep the shape compact in order to navigate through this potential minefield.
Los Angeles faces the most straightforward of the three second-leg tasks when C.S. Herediano visits the Home Depot Center (live, FOX Soccer, Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET). The MLS Cup holders returned from Costa Rica last week with a rather frustrating 0-0 draw in their back pocket. Although the Galaxy failed to claim a crucial away goal, the champions still enter this match as significant favorites to book a place in the semifinals.
Recent history should provide ample motivation for the Galaxy to conclude its business professionally. Los Angeles faced a similar task at this stage in last year's tournament after securing a 2-2 away draw at Toronto FC. Somehow, the Galaxy managed to squander that precious first-leg result by suffering a 2-1 home defeat to a TFC side that ultimately finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. A similar lapse here could provide the Costa Ricans with a chance to spring a similar shock, but the Galaxy – particularly in light of the first leg – should dash those dreams and progress to the semifinals.
The state of the Galaxy's quarterfinal tie means the minimum requirements for MLS involve securing at least one berth in the semifinals. Two places would represent a significant step forward for the league because it would include a first victory by a MLS side over a Mexican outfit in the knockout stages in the Champions League. And three spots would mark a genuine signal of intent in the competition.
Those potentially positive outcomes could still yield to something approaching the status quo. It is down to the three involved sides to build on their first leg work, cinch the necessary results and propel MLS forward in its lengthy quest to catch up with Liga MX and close the gap with other top competitions around the world.
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