[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS CUP/TV]The odds of an MLS team reaching the Concacaf Champions' Cup final had seemingly increased when only one Mexican team, Pachuca, reached the semifinals and both Houston and D.C. United advanced. Yet both face an uphill battle in their respective semifinal series, the second legs of which take place Wednesday. Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney explains MLS teams' biggest handicap.
D.C. United-PachucaFox Soccer Channel (live) 7:30 p.m. ET.
Deportivo Saprissa-HoustonFox Soccer Channel (live) 10 pm ET.
Contestant No. 4, Costa Rican club Deportivo Saprissa, knocked off Atlante in the quarterfinals and is a formidable enough opponent, as the Dynamo found out in the first leg when it labored to a goalless tie at Robertson Stadium.
For the return leg on Saprissa's artificial surface on Wednesday, Houston will be missing goalkeeper Pat Onstad (bruised shoulder), midfielder Stuart Holden (ankle sprain) and defenders Eddie Robinson (knee injury) and Bobby Boswell (suspension).
D.C. United is down, 2-0, as it prepares to take on Pachuca with most of its players healthy. The absence of Jaime Moreno in its MLS opener against Kansas City and the first leg in Mexico contributed to goalless performances. Moreno returned to help D.C. pound Toronto, 4-1, which should inject United with confidence and attacking impetus for the rematch with Pachuca.
For all the importance it places on international competitions such as the Concacaf tournament, Copa Sudamericana and Superliga, MLS has yet to expand its rosters sufficiently so its teams can compete against top-level regional squads, many of whom stock 25-man rosters and pay several multiples of the $2.2 million salary cap.
MLS teams can spend more than that sum by the use of allocation money, yet what teams need are bodies who can not just fill a jersey on the bench, but step in and contribute.
Pachuca, for example, lists a half-dozen attackers who would not only start on most MLS teams, but could be candidates for the Best XI. Thrown against tough opposition, playing at altitude, the fact D.C. escaped only two goals down is nearly miraculous.
"I was thinking about that while I was watching the [Pachuca-D.C.] game the other night, and boy, we've got to do better," said MLS commissioner Don Garber. "For this league to win over the core audience, we've got to be able to be among the best clubs in North America.
"D.C. United talks about their goal is to win a spot in the World Club Championship. They want to be the best team in the region, the best team in Concacaf. They really struggled the other night."
Houston, playing at home, also struggled, partly because youngsters Corey Ashe and Stuart Holden - who have performed well against MLS opposition in the absence of midfielders Brad Davis and Brian Mullan - only rarely troubled Saprissa, which rested many of its first-teamers and still came out goalless.
Probably not until a new collective bargaining agreement is negotiated after the 2009 season will rosters be expanded. The salary cap has been increased slightly the past two seasons, by approximately $100,000, but that's what teams spend for two or three backups, not the funds required for an impact player.
Speaking of backups, when a shoulder injury knocked Onstad out of action early against FC Dallas last Sunday, Tony Caig replaced him with Houston leading, 1-0. Caig looked shaky on at least two of the three goals Dallas scored in a 3-3 tie.
Last year, Coach Dominic Kinnear could have replaced him with Zach Wells, but during the offseason, Kinnear traded Wells to D.C. United to get Boswell, who had been acquired to replace Ryan Cochrane, claimed by San Jose in the expansion draft.
There's no assurance a larger roster would have enabled Kinnear to keep Wells, but such a domino effect on rosters is glaringly evident when MLS teams take on strong Concacaf teams.
Kinnear may get back Davis and Brian Mullan for the second leg but the Saprissa attack will storm his shorthanded back line. No MLS team has ever won (0-4-1 record) on the home field of the Purple Monsters.
The workrate and range of Ricardo Clark, who covered staggering amounts of ground in the first leg, will help, yet a shutout is unlikely, so somehow Houston must conjure up a goal.
United stocked its roster during the offseason with additional South Americans to better cope with teams like Pachuca. The central pairing of Gonzalo Martinez and Gonzalo Peralta will be vital not only for blunting the attacks of Los Tuzos, but also to use the ball effectively out of the back.
Last year, D.C. and Houston lost to Mexican opposition in the Concacaf semifinals by aggregate margins of a single goal. A bit of luck might close that gap but another good player or two is a better bet.