[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] Whether it fails or succeeds in the Concacaf Champions League, all those connected with Seattle Sounders FC will believe they gave the competition their best shot, on and off the field. Seattle flew to Dallas for a training session Tuesday, then continued on to Torreon, Mexico, where it faces Santos Laguna (8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer, Galavision) leading, 2-1, from the first leg.
The track record of MLS teams against Mexican opposition in knockout situations is daunting, even if the group phase last year produced three wins for MLS teams in Mexico, including a Sounders’ away victory against the eventual champion, Monterrey.
“When we beat Monterrey down there, it was a big deal,” says technical director Chris Henderson of a 1-0 Group D victory last August. “The TV commentators were talking about how Mexican teams have to take the MLS teams seriously. They realize the gap is not so big anymore and need to field the first team.”
The Sounders are attempting to buck history. Since the Champions League format was adopted in 2008, no MLS team has won a head-to-head knockout series against a Mexican team. Ten years ago, under the old Champions Cup format that didn’t feature an initial group phase, Kansas City ousted Santos Laguna, 3-2, in the quarterfinals. But that’s it.
The close calls are many, including a 1998 preliminary round series between the Colorado Rapids, for which Henderson played for much of his MLS career, and Leon. Colorado won the first leg at Invesco Field at Mile High, 1-0, but lost in Leon, 4-2, to exit on aggregate, 4-3. Suffice to say that the proceedings were conducted rather casually, at least as far as the visitors were concerned.
“Ten minutes before kickoff they switched jerseys, and our equipment manager didn’t bring the other set, so we were suiting up in the polos we traveled in and taping numbers on the back,” recalls Henderson. “Then just before it’s time to warm up they said, ‘OK, we’ll switch back.’ And then the refs didn’t show from Trinidad and there just happened to be a local crew that was willing to take the game.
“I think I got red-carded in the first half. It was interesting. If that were to happen right now, if the refs didn’t show, we’d say, ‘OK, we’ll play the game another time,’ and would have gone home. But at that time we couldn’t afford it. We’ve come a long way.”
These days, Concacaf runs a tighter ship – though on-field melees are still common -- and MLS teams commit the resources to preparing properly. The Sounders sent Henderson and assistant coach/scout Kurt Schmid to a league game against UNAM Pumas to not just help formulate a game plan but to find the right hotel and attend to other logistical details such as travel times and routes, possible training sites, etc. One week before the home leg, Seattle played another Mexican team, Jaguares Chiapas, to get further reinforcement of the Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday match schedule it followed during the preseason.
“They had people up here when we played Jaguares, which they never would have done in the past,” said Henderson, a former U.S. international who played for Sounders’ head coach Sigi Schmid at UCLA and took numerous trips to Mexico, Central America, and South America with the U.S. U-20, Olympic, and national teams.
Though the Santos players and coaches arrived for the first leg the night before the game, numerous club officials came earlier and were escorted around the stadium and various locations by Sounders’ employees, including Henderson.
“I think they’re bringing 41 people, total,” said Henderson. “When Kurt and I went down there to watch the Pumas game, they were great to us. They offered us the field if we wanted to train, we saw the locker rooms, went down on the field, got a tour. They were really open to starting a relationship.”
Not every Mexican team facing MLS opposition automatically rolls out the big guns, but such is also the case when the foes are Costa Rican or Honduran or Panamanian. In the group phase, a team can drop points and still advance. The stakes are higher in knockout play but even in that case, a hiccup at home isn’t necessarily doom and gloom.
Real Salt Lake lost to Monterrey, 3-2, on aggregate in last year’s finals after a heroic RSL effort extracted a 2-2 tie in the first leg at Estadio Technologico. A sellout crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium – where a 0-0 or 1-1 tie would have been sufficient because of the away goals -- watched in disbelief as Monterrey shattered RSL’s home invincibility to win, 1-0.
The past five years have produced several close shaves:
2007 semifinals (Champions Cup)
Houston beats Pachuca, 2-0, at home, loses, 5-2, away in overtime. Aggregate: Pachuca, 5-4. D.C. United ties Guadalajara, 1-1, at home, loses, 2-1, away. Aggregate: Guadalajara, 3-2.
2008 semifinals (Champions Cup)
Pachuca beats D.C. United, 2-0, in Mexico, D.C wins home leg, 2-1. Aggregate: Pachuca, 3-2.
2008-09 quarterfinals (Champions League)
Houston ties Atlante, 1-1, at home, and loses away, 3-0. Aggregate: Atlante, 4-1.
2009-10 quarterfinals (Champions League)
Columbus ties Toluca, 2-2 at home, and loses away, 3-2. Aggregate: Toluca, 5-4.
Seattle does take a one-goal edge into Mexico but unless it can match the away goal scored by Santos it can only be assured of advancing by getting at least a tie, as RSL did a year ago. Seattle had the weekend off, Santos tuned up by drilling Puebla, 3-1, Saturday with Herculez Gomez, who scored in the first leg at CenturyLink Field, netting twice.
“I think there was a time where, in the early 90s, the national team really turned things around, especially against Mexico in Concacaf,” says Henderson. “It may be where we’re at now with MLS, where the national team was in the early 90s. As a league, that has to be our goal, to be the dominant league in this region. We’ve made a lot of strides in a short period of time.”