By Ridge Mahoney
Results Tuesday and Wednesday in the Concacaf Champions League matching MLS teams against rivals from Liga MX confirmed the worst; whatever the methods being used by the teams and the league to boost their chances of success, they’re not working.
Whatever optimism might have been generated in the last decade when MLS teams dueled Mexican rivals during the short-lived (2007-10) SuperLiga competition has dissipated. SuperLiga games were staged exclusively in the United States during the summer, when Mexican teams start their preseasons. They played MLS opponents in midseason form. MLS teams did reasonably well, though still Mexican teams won three of the four installments.
A reversal of schedule and setting hasn’t gone well for MLS. The CCL quarterfinals dovetail with the start of the MLS regular season and midpoint of Liga MX. The three outcomes this week are very typical of past performances; one agonizingly close series, a solid Mexican victory, and a right stomping.
Only the Quakes stayed in contention playing their second leg in Mexico. Four-time MLS Cup winner Los Angeles and defending league champion Sporting Kansas City conceded four and five goals, respectively, leaving MLS teams minus-4 on goal difference (seven scored, 11 allowed). True, most of that margin was SKC’s 5-2 aggregate loss to Cruz Azul, yet both the Galaxy and SKC were riddled early and only two Robbie Keane goals gave the Galaxy any reason for hope after Tijuana, trailing 1-0 from the first leg, blitzed L.A. for three goals in the first 26 minutes.
Sensational saves by keeper Jon Busch and stubborn resistance denied numerous Toluca attacks before and after the Quakes stunningly took the lead in Toluca when defender Ty Harden, one of several replacements summoned for a banged-up back line, headed a Shea Salinas free kick into the top far corner.
San Jose-born Issac Brizuela’s equalizer tied the aggregate at 2-2 and ratcheted up the pressure yet the Quakes held out for the remaining 50 minutes of regulation and overtime, during which they inevitably lost a seemingly good goal. Alan Gordon belted home a rebound but the flag was up for offside. In the penalty kick shootout, Toluca prevailed when Wilson Tiago nailed home his attempt and Shea Salinas misfired.
Since the present format was adopted for the 2008-09 edition, there have been 12 head-to-head series between MLS and Liga MX teams in the knockout rounds. Only Seattle has won an eliminator against a Mexican team: a 3-2 aggregate triumph over Tigres in the 2012-13 quarterfinals. Ten others have been won outright by Mexican clubs, and Toluca prevailed on penalty kicks.
At home, MLS teams are 5-2-5. In more than one-half of the games, the Mexican teams either got a tie or won on the road. In four of those five wins, the MLS team won by single goal at home and was eventually eliminated. On the five occasions the MLS team tied its home leg, it failed to advance, although one of those cases was the Quakes losing on penalties. In their home legs, the Mexican teams are 9-0-3.
Seldom does the MLS team play the second leg at home, which is perceived to be an advantage. Seattle beat Tigres at home in the second leg, 3-1, after losing, 1-0, in Mexico. Real Salt Lake stumbled in the 2010-11 finals; it tied Monterrey, 2-2, in Mexico, then came to Rio Tinto and lost, 1-0.
MLS has taken a few steps to help teams playing in the CCL. A modest amount of allocation money, between $100,000 and $125,000 in the past few years, is earmarked for participating teams. League schedules have been juggled to give teams a weekend off to better prepare for CCL matches, but the discrepancy in playing seasons can’t really be rectified unless the league switches to the European fall-to-spring schedule adheres to by Liga MX. Despite commissioner Don Garber’s public pronouncement that such a radical move could well happen in the future, that doesn't mean it will happen soon, if at all.
So what can be done?
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY. An increased salary cap is the magic bullet cited by many, but while Mexican teams are known to spend much more than the approximately $3 million per-team salary cap in force this season, determining actual figures is a murky business. Bitter negotiations loom between management and the players’ union regarding the collective bargaining agreement that expires at the end of the season and the Board of Governors won’t go hog-wild just to keep up with Mexican teams, which every year play lucrative friendlies in the U.S., some of which are promoted by the league’s marketing arm, SUM.
Mexican teams may not necessarily have better players, per se, but they clearly have more good ones. Keane and Donovan and Omar Gonzalez (sometimes) are the equal of their Tijuana counterparts, most of their teammates aren’t.
The league champions were forced to field several backups and the game quickly got ugly. Yet the Galaxy had most of its regular starters on the field and didn’t do much better. Toluca, whose coach Jose Cardozo obviously took the Quakes more lightly than he should have, labored to punch out a shorthanded foe. Yet if not for the heroics of Busch, the series would have been over before Gordon “scored” in overtime.
To significantly strengthen an MLS roster as well as provide needed depth would require bigger salaries for a roster of 18. And those increases would apply to all teams across the board at a considerable cost for the benefit of only those few teams that qualify each year. Not good business.
The league is expecting a much more lucrative TV deal to replace its current arrangements that expire at the end of the season. But don’t expect a lot of that money to go into a salary-cap increase solely for the sake of Concacaf play. And jacking up TV ratings, as the league is desperate to do, requires more star players at seven-figure salaries, not 50 percent bumps for backup defensive mids.
CONDITIONING CONUNDRUM. The Mexican teams were so much sharper and fitter it was at times embarrassing. Increasing the intensity of MLS preseason preparations would seem a logical move but with a 34-game regular season the primary objective, teams would be taking considerable risk of injury and burnout to start preseason earlier and/or ratchet up training sessions in late February. There’s no way to replicate two months of Liga MX competition during a preseason training camp.
MLS teams don’t like to discuss the effects of playing at the high altitudes of many Mexican cities. The Quakes seemed to fare reasonably well though Busch certainly played a blinder, and Tijuana was all of 65 feet above sea level as it torched the Galaxy. Coaches and players cite the technical skill and cohesive play all over the field as factors greater than altitudes such as those of Toluca (elevation: 8,800 feet), Mexico City (7,350 feet) and many other cities.
However, the more intriguing question is: Could altitude training be used doing preseason training to prepare players for playing in those settings as well as significantly improve overall conditioning? It’s one of the few available methods to improve a very daunting proposition.
The timing of altitude training would be crucial and a period of 10-to-14 days would be required for the players to derive real benefit when they took on Mexican teams in early March and perhaps again in the spring. Yet the effects last for months when players return to sea level, and they could certainly better cope with opponents who come flying at them from the opening kickoff.
Altitude training often causes nausea, dizziness, and headaches, though after a few days those effects usually subside. The main advantages are greater endurance and increased lung capacity. Former U.S. head coach Steve Sampson used altitude training prior to a crucial qualifier in Mexico City during the 1997 Hexagonal, and despite going down a man in the opening minutes, the Americans emerged with a 0-0 tie.
Another conditioning aspect is mental. Mexican teams also travel a lot, and each year a few fly thousands of miles into South America to play Libertadores Cup matches, many of which are staged at high elevations in front of fanatical crowds. Deep squads help the teams cope, but there’s also in place a competitive developmental process that hones and toughens players as they move up the ranks from youth levels to the first team. MLS teams are still developing the types of programs that can approximate this environment.
ONE IS NOT ENOUGH. Pitching a shutout at home is a worthy objective, as Concacaf does use the away-goals rule. And any margin of victory at home will suffice if an MLS team can garner a tie in the away leg, which the Quakes managed to do. But they are the exception. MLS teams can take two paths; improve enough to get at least a tie on the road or win at home by more than one.
Heading across the border to face a much sharper opponent and perhaps playing at altitude as well requires more than a one-goal cushion. But a team fresh off its preseason training will find it difficult to push and press a talented opponent for the sustained periods that can produce a goal. MLS teams simply cannot generate the same levels of energy and intensity that their Mexican counterparts produce, not only at home but on the road as well.
This smacks of the obvious, but MLS teams need to be more ruthless on their offensive set plays, since their chances of maintaining the same pace as their opponents over a 90-minute game are slim if not negligible. There’s enough time in preseason training to work on set plays specific to the opposition, since the matchups are known months in advance. And this is more than just bringing up the big boys into the box, though such a tactic has proven to be effective. Free kicks around the box and corners must be a main priority and if that means a few extra hours during preseason refining the runs and serves and shots essential to dead-ball situations, so be it.
BAD-ASS BUSCH. Your keeper is going to be bombarded much of the time. Be ready for it.