By Ridge Mahoney
There won't be many excuses for Seattle and Los Angeles when they face Liga MX opposition in the Concacaf Champions League semifinals next month, and both series will present a true test of where the top MLS clubs stack up against their Mexican counterparts.
The Sounders square off against Santos Laguna and the Galaxy takes on two-time defending regional champion Monterrey in the semifinals to be played during the first two weeks of April. Both MLS teams play the first legs at home, which is generally regarded as a disadvantage; as the higher-seeded teams, all four quarterfinal winners hosted the second legs.
But playing the cards you are dealt and prevailing nonetheless is how respect is established. The MLS teams have about three weeks to plan and prepare for these acid tests. Unless the league schedule is revamped, they won’t have the advantage of resting from league play, as was the case when they sat out the league schedule on the weekend between the quarterfinals’ first and second legs.
The Galaxy plays in Toronto March 30, a Saturday, and then flies cross-country to host Monterrey. Seattle is also on the road, also on Saturday, and though its league game is a short trip, facing RSL at Rio Tinto is about as tough a tune-up as one can imagine. Both teams are at home the following weekend (April 7-8).
Whatever lingering rust that affected MLS teams in the quarterfinals should be scraped away by then. On the line will a spot in the CCL final, the winner of which advances to represent Concacaf at the Club World Cup Dec. 11-21 in Morocco, and a huge dose of bragging rights in the rivalry between MLS and Liga MX.
Unlikely is the possibility Monterrey and/or Santos will follow the lead of UANL Tigres, which won the first leg against Seattle, 1-0, and sent a second-tier squad to CenturyLink Field. Tigres got off to a great start and scored the first goal to take a 2-0 lead on aggregate, then lost Manuel Viniegra to a second caution shortly before halftime and surrendered three goals as a crowd of more than 20,000 celebrated the dramatic comeback.
Santos Laguna and U.S. forward Herculez Gomez has already taunted the Sounders by tweeting a reminder of the 6-1 beatdown his team inflicted in the teams’ last meeting. Two-time defending champion Monterrey topped Real Salt Lake in the finals two years ago and beat Santos Laguna, 3-2, to take the crown last year. Even if the Liga MX race takes first priority, it’s game on.
With a few more league games to sharpen their form prior to the CCL semis, Seattle and the Galaxy should be less prone to lapses and letdowns than in the quarterfinals. If they need a reminder of how costly those glitches can be, all they need do is watch the Santos Laguna-Houston second leg.
A clumsy penalty-area foul and two glaring breakdowns provided opportunities the Mexican club gleefully exploited to win the match and the series, 3-1. In midseason form, Santos capitalized on a Dynamo defense weakened by a last-minute change and disastrous defensive lapses.
Warren Creavalle, called into the squad when regular left back Corey Ashe had to be scratched from the starting lineup, wrapped up forward Oribe Peralta as a cross came into the box and wound up on the ground entangled with Peralta as the ball sailed over their heads. Juan Pablo Rodriguez’s penalty kick was sensationally tipped onto the crossbar by keeper Tally Hall, but Rodriguez got to the rebound a hair ahead of Hall and midfielder Adam Moffat to force the ball over the goal line.
When defender Bobby Boswell and Hall hesitated near the edge of the penalty area to collect a loose ball, Gomez knifed between them to ruthlessly punish their indecision. Substitute Matt Driver lost the mark on Marc Crosas as a free kick floated to the far post; Hall didn’t challenge for the ball and also failed to close down the angle as Crosas nailed a shot that caromed off the keeper’s chest into the net.
Gomez’s tweet sent out earlier today read: “Happy Anniversary Seattle! On this day 1 yr ago you made your first trip to the Estadio Corona! Such fun!”
Oh, it’s definitely game on.