Concacaf Champions League: Mexican quartet on top against best of MLS

DC United and RSL must overcome two-goal deficits to progress, while Seattle and LA Galaxy have to avoid defeat in Mexico. Who’s best placed to go through?

Watching the four MLS sides battle gamely for little reward in the Concacaf Champions League last week felt a bit like watching the same game four times. Each team had their moments, generally in the first half, but around the 70th minute in each game there came a point where a kind of gravitational pull seemed to exert itself on the MLS sides playing their first competitive games of the year.

It’s not to say that match fitness and sharpness was the only difference between the US and Mexican teams – even if all concerned had been in mid-season form, the gap has not yet closed as much as MLS executives would like – but what was definitely true was that the late period of three of the games produced potential series-deciding goals for the Liga MX sides.

DC United are not a side who win aesthetic awards. Under Ben Olsen, they’re scrappy, compact and hard to beat rather than dominant. For a significant part of their first leg against a Queretaro team deemed the most vulnerable in these quarter-finals, these looked like ideal virtues. DC stifled Queretaro, and by the time Joe Kemp’s ambitious long-range shot cannoned off the crossbar midway through the second half, were maybe even dreaming of taking a lead back to RFK Stadium.

But from the point Yerson Candelo scooped a beautiful shot into the top corner in the 71st minute, you could feel the air go out of the DC team, and by the time the final whistle went they looked grateful that Edgar Benitez’ 83rd-minute effort was the only further damage done on the night.

And it was pretty much the same scenario for the other MLS team on the road in the first leg, Real Salt Lake. Like DC, they had their chances against Tigres, but Yura Movsisyan’s 40th-minute glaring miss summed up their lack of attacking sharpness.

In the 67th minute they were behind to a Jose Rivas goal, and then, with time running out and RSL dropping deeper and deeper, Jurgen Damm bundled another one. Tigres came into the first leg as firm favorites, and should be even firmer favorites to finish the job at Rio Tinto Stadium.

The home teams fared marginally better, but having twice taken the lead, Seattle needed to do better than a 2-2 draw to take to the Azteca in the second leg. Club América looked to be playing well within themselves for most of the night in Seattle, and while any team that features Clint Dempsey always has a puncher’s chance of making something happen, the most telling moment of the first half was not his sublime free-kick to put Seattle ahead, but the shocking defensive line that allowed Club America to equalize 92 seconds later. At altitude, having given up two away goals already, Seattle have it all to do against the champions.

Which leaves us with LA Galaxy, who will be the happiest of the MLS quartet after holding Santos Laguna to a 0-0 draw — though they, too, could live to regret not taking chances early on. Jelle van Damme’s first minute flicked header could have given the Galaxy the lead, but as it was he was busier at the other end, as he and the other experienced defensive reinforcements of Ashley Cole and Nigel de Jong set about correcting the defensive vulnerabilities that had beset the Galaxy in 2015.

Veteran goalkeeper Dan Kennedy also made his debut, so whatever happens in the second leg, it won’t be a case of the Galaxy getting overwhelmed by the occasion. But Bruce Arena will be mindful that just as in the other games the Mexican side could have won the game late on — had Javier Orozco’s 80th-minute header crept in, the Galaxy would have faced a rather tighter scenario than the one where a score draw sends them through.

With a place in the Club World Cup available for the competition winner, the Galaxy – probably the most globally ambitious of any MLS club – probably place greater emphasis on this competition than any of their peers. And of course they have a more local imperative, too – their southern California location puts them in direct competition for players and fanbase with Mexican opposition. Bruce Arena won’t exactly be delighted with the first-leg result, but under the circumstances of his team trying to be competitive from a standing start, he’ll be happy enough to be able to set up on the counter for the second leg.

In the end it was a frustrating couple of evenings for MLS teams rather than a truly sobering one — there was a gap rather than a gulf in class, and for much of the 360 minutes of soccer we saw they were well-matched with their opponents. But not so well-matched that they could give up the pre-season/mid-season advantage to the Liga MX teams. This remains the toughest of rounds for MLS teams.

DC United (0) v Queretaro FC (2), 8pm Tue, RFK Stadium (FS2, UDN, SNWL)

Santos Laguna (0) v LA Galaxy (0), 10pm Tue, Estadio Corona (FS2, SNWL)

Club America (2) v Seattle Sounders (2), 8pm Wed, Estadio Azteca (FS2, UDN, SNWL)

Real Salt Lake (0) v Tigres UANL (2), 10pm Wed, Rio Tinto Stadium (FS2, SNWL)