MLS clubs may pay ultimate price
It started to look like this edition of the CONCACAF Champions League might turn in MLS' favor when the final whistle blew at Estadio Azteca on Tuesday night.
The possibility for success in this competition increased when Club América exited the Champions League. América loomed as the next Monterrey, the side destined to inspire fear in any of its opponents in the latter stages. It is a hard-earned reputation given Las Aguilas' domestic success over the past year. But a full strength América starting XI – perhaps distracted by its impending audition to become the Mexican national team wholesale – lost 1-0 to LD Alajuelense to end its charge before it truly commenced.
América's stunning departure offered encouragement to the hopeful interlopers a bit further to the north. Four MLS sides – the maximum number possible with Montréal and San Jose drawn in the same group – looked in line for a quarterfinal berth. Three Mexican sides and a plucky Costa Rican outfit loomed as the potential opposition. And MLS Cup holders LA Galaxy slipped into position to avoid a Liga MX outfit in the final eight.
Much of the hope dissipated after San Jose booked its place with a 1-0 home win over C.D. Heredia in the nightcap on Tuesday. Sporting Kansas City spurned an opportunity to improve its seeding by achieving the bare minimum in a 0-0 home draw against C.D. Olimpia on Wednesday. Houston selected a raft of reserves, with domestic playoff pursuits taking priority, and slid out of the competition in a chicanery-marred 1-0 defeat at Árabe Unido on Thursday. And a youthful LA Galaxy outfit capped a horrible Thursday for the league by chucking away a top-four seed and a simpler quarterfinal tie against Alajuelense or Árabe Unido with a ghastly 4-0 loss to Isidro Metapán in San Salvador.
Instead of seizing its opportunity to gain a foothold in this competition with América now eliminated, MLS squandered it with a mixture of poor displays and schedule-related concessions. The repercussions for those actions will exact a heavy toll when the quarterfinals start in March.
The three remaining MLS sides will challenge their Liga MX counterparts as the lower-seeded teams at that juncture. Only one of those MLS clubs – LA Galaxy ahead of its quarterfinal tie with Club Tijuana – will enter the tie on something approaching level ground if everything holds in its current place. Both San Jose (against top-seeded Toluca) and Sporting Kansas City (against second-seeded Cruz Azul) confront significant obstacles to even secure a semifinal berth as presently constituted.
Each of the three remaining MLS sides can at least point to the possibility of altered circumstances heading into the championship stage for some inspiration and solace. The layoff offers ample opportunity to bolster the ranks and devise a way through to the last four, though there are more fundamental question to ponder as well. San Jose faces a decision about interim coach Mark Watson and the composition of the squad after a poor first half and a stellar run to close the season. Sporting Kansas City grapples with how to use the additional funds generated by Kei Kamara's summer sale to Middlesbrough to supply some reliable incisiveness to a weak attack. And LA Galaxy wonders whether it can upgrade around the edges with Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez and Robbie Keane likely to return next season.
Those concerns also extend to how the Mexican clubs will change with chopping and changing always on the table. Cruz Azul possesses a capable and settled, albeit ageing, squad. Toluca sits near the top of the Liga MX table in José Cardozo's first season in charge and wants to stay the course. Tijuana wades into the thick of the Liguilla mire over the next few weeks after an inconsistent start to life under Jorge Almiron.
Any number of events over the next few months can shift the landscape considerably, but they will not solve all of the problems ahead. Every feasible path toward a first Champions League crown runs straight through a Mexican side at the first genuine hurdle. There is an arduous road ahead for each of the MLS contenders as they try to reconcile their fitness issues during preseason with their opponents in the midst of the Clausura.
It is not the more welcoming task that came to mind when full time came in Mexico City on Tuesday night, but the past few days scuttled those aspirations and replaced them with a sobering thought instead. It is now down to the MLS representatives to wrest control of the Champions League through a long-awaited coup without the safety net of a kind draw. If they cannot discern a way to do so, then they may ultimately rue how the final days of the group stage closed their potential window and left them on the outside in the latter stages of this tournament once more.