[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE]Despite going winless in their away legs, Mexican clubs remain the favorites to move into the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League against MLS opponents. Tijuana, Cruz Azul and Toluca all have big home-field advantages and they have history on their side. But MLS clubs have already won one thing: respect.
Gone are the days that Mexican clubs can use the regional competition as an opportunity to give their reserves some playing time. Tigres did that last year and paid the price, being eliminated by the Seattle Sounders, the only MLS club to beat a Mexican club in eight CCL series between MLS and Liga MX teams since the Concacaf tournament was rebranded in 2009.
Tijuana and Cruz Azul both played their first teams for their away legs last week and Tijuana coach Cesar Farias went so far as to rest eight starters against the LA Galaxy for Xolos' match against Cruz Azul on Saturday night to get them fit for Tuesday's second leg against the Galaxy at the Estadio Caliente. With an extra day to prepare for the second leg, all of Cruz Azul's starters from its 1-0 loss at Sporting KC started or came on as subs in its 2-1 win in Mexico City that kept it in first place in the Liga MX, three points ahead of Toluca.
Only Toluca rested key players like its two California-born Mexican World Cup hopefuls, Miguel Ponce and Isaac Brizuela, and leading scorer Pablo Velasquez, but all but two starters against the Quakes had played in at least half of the Diablos Rojos' Torneo Clausura matches, and Brizuela, who was born in San Jose, was brought on in the second half.
A few MLS clubs are only now beginning to rival Mexican clubs for their long benches, making it possible for them to remain competitive into the knockout stage that coincides with the start of the MLS season. Of the three MLS clubs involved in the quarterfinals, only Sporting KC did not take off the first or second week of the MLS season, and its coach, Peter Vermes, put out three different lineups for its first three games. Sporting KC beat Cruz Azul, 1-0, on a goal by reserve right back Kevin Ellis.
All three MLS-Liga MX first legs were even. If anything, MLS clubs may come to rue missed opportunities in the first legs, having all finished with an edge in shots.
CCL first legs, Shots:
Sporting KC 9-7 over Cruz Azul
LA Galaxy 18-15 over Tijuana
San Jose Earthquakes20-10 over Toluca
Steven Lenhart headed a Sean Salinas cross off the crossbar for the Quakes, while Graham Zusi, who was rested Saturday, hit the crossbar from distance for Sporting KC against Toluca. The Galaxy did what it could not do in the semifinals a year ago -- hold on to a late lead at home -- but it had goalie Jaime Penedo to thank for holding off Tijuana in the second half of its 1-0 win.
All three Mexican clubs will carry significant home-field advantages in this week's second legs. The Galaxy doesn't have to worry about altitude like Sporting KC and the Quakes do, but Xolos are almost impossible to beat at home on artificial turf. They had a 17-game unbeaten streak at the Estadio Caliente snapped in February. Their ability to hold serve or at least not lose to the big Brazilian clubs at home was a big reason they reached the quarterfinals of the 2013 Copa Libertadores.
Cruz Azul hasn't lost in its last 10 games in the Liga MX at its Estadio Azul in Mexico City. At 8,750 feet above sea level, Toluca's Estadio Nemesio Diez, better known as La Bombonera, is one of the most feared venues in Mexico. Like Cruz Azul, Toluca has never lost to a non-Mexican opponent at home in the Concacaf Champions League.
A few recent results on Mexican soil give the trio of MLS contenders hope for the second -- Real Salt Lake's 2-2 tie at Monterrey in the first leg of the 2011 final and Seattle's 1-1 tie (after a 1-0 loss at home) at Monterrey in the 2012 semifinals come to mind -- but history is certainly against them.
Dating back to the two-leg format of the old Concacaf Champions Cup, no MLS team has ever won a series against a Mexican club when it played on the road in the second leg and no MLS team has ever won in 18 meetings on Mexican soil.