MLS clubs cope with Champions League challenge

[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] When Toronto FC decided early last week to jettison director of soccer Mo Johnston and Coach Preki, its short-term concerns were nearly immediate. Interim coach Nick Dasovic, formerly one of Preki’s assistants, had barely a day to prepare his team for a Wednesday date in Salt Lake City for a Concacaf Champions League match. TFC lost to defending MLS champion Real Salt Lake, 4-1, and quickly headed to Houston to resume league play.

Two spectacular goals by Dwayne De Rosario secured a 2-1 win, yet despite that victory’s importance in TFC’s push to make the playoffs, Dasovic and his players had little time to savor it. They stayed over in Houston to train on Monday, then headed to Mexico City that night for its next CCL test against Cruz Azul, which Toronto had beaten, 2-1, to open group play last month. TFC managed a scoreless tie with Cruz Azul on Tuesday.

The advent of Concacaf Champions League group play, which consists of six matches per team spread over nine weeks, has jammed up the schedules for the four MLS participants in the round of 16: TFC, Real Salt Lake, Seattle, and Columbus. TFC needs a strong run to get into the postseason, but the other three teams are solidly in the playoff tier with varying chances to win the title.

Charter flights, extra gear, personal contacts, and standby travel arrangements can help teams facilitate trips to Mexico and Central America, and even Puerto Rico, to fit Concacaf games into the final one-third of MLS regular-season play. Planning and preparation can smooth out the rough spots but snags and foul-ups are not uncommon when long trips, crowded schedules and Concacaf are involved.

In a 1-0 road loss to Mexican club Santos Laguna last month, Columbus lost a goal when forward Emilio Renteria set up a goal moments after he had re-entered the field but it was disallowed.

Renteria left the field for treatment of a head wound that bloodied his original jersey. The replacement jersey had no name or number on the back, and the Crew was told it was ruled he’d re-entered illegally, and the goal he created with a cross to Andy Iro was wiped out.

Panamanian referee Luis Rodriguez's official report noted that the goal was disallowed because Renteria had not been waived back on the field, but the Crew protested, pointing out that Renteria had been waved onto the field by the referee.

(The rules of the competition state that teams are to travel with two full sets of jerseys, and that each player’s jersey must include his name. Apparently, neither the fourth official nor the referee’s assistant had noticed that problem when Renteria reported for re-entry.)

Crew coach Robert Warzycha had sent out mostly reserves. Brian Carroll was the only midfield regular to start. Santos also held back many of its starters, and nearly paid the price by not scoring its goal until stoppage time.

Toronto has embarked on some arduous journeys. It chartered a flight last month for a trip to Honduras to play Motagua in the qualifying round and still endured a nightmare of complications and delays. Instead of landing in Tegucigalpa, site of Motagua’s home leg in the two-match preliminary round, the pilot deemed that airport unsafe for landing and flew to San Pedro Sula.

The players then boarded a bus for a five-hour ride to Tegucigalpa. Holding a 1-0 advantage from the first leg, TFC played its fourth match in 11 days yet still pulled out a 2-2 tie that qualified it for the group stage by a 3-2 aggregate count.

As has long been the case in MLS, success begats as many problems as benefits. Rosters are still relatively small at a maximum of 20 full-time players and up to six on the protected list, two of which must be home-grown players. The CCL group games fall at the worst possible time, when players are already tired and banged up after a long season, and often laboring under heavy pressure due to playoff implications. Coaches often use the international games as testing grounds for less experienced players.

TFC started the first Cruz Azul game with De Rosario, Chad Barrett and several other regulars on the bench. RSL traveled to Panama for a Wednesday match against Arabe Unido without Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert and Andy Williams, who were being rested, as well as two injury victims, playmaker Javier Morales and recent arrival Paulo Junior.

Seattle, which lost all three of its first three games, squeezed in a day of training Monday after winning, 4-0, in Columbus on Saturday, then flew to Mexico for a Wednesday match in Monterrey. In its expansion season last year, the Sounders put a lot of resources into winning the U.S. Open Cup, the winner of which qualifies for the Concacaf Champions’ League.

Seattle has yet to clinch a playoff spot, and is also back in the Open Cup final, so Coach Sigi Schmid admitted he’d be using a lot of backups in the last three CCL games. After the game in Monterrey, the Sounders play in Chicago on Saturday. He didn’t plan to use right back James Riley in Mexico to save him for the league match.

Though Seattle has struggled in its first international competition as an MLS team, general manager Adrian Hanauer is a proponent of such experiences, and he and Schmid have shaped the team with extra competitions in mind. “Alvaro Fernandez has played Libertadores Cup, Blaise [Nkufo] has played some pretty big games, and so has Fredy [Montero],” said Hanauer. “Leo Gonzalez has played for the Costa Rican national team, so we have some guys who’ve been there.

“It’s going to be an evolution. I hope we continue, as a league, to work on Champions League and really build it up to a huge regional tournament. It could take three years, five years, 10 years, but it could be something really special.”

Columbus took over first place in Group B and all but clinched a spot in the quarterfinal round by beating Santos, 1-0, Tuesday at home with a goal by substitute Andres Mendoza in the 87th minute. Prior to the match, Warzycha had put the game, and the CCL, in perspective.

“The most important thing for us is to be in front of New York, get first place in the conference and go to the playoffs with home-field advantage,” he said.

2 comments about "MLS clubs cope with Champions League challenge".
  1. Mark Johnston, September 22, 2010 at 1:03 p.m.

    This why MLS needs to go to single table, no playoffs and no Stupidliga.
    Regular season, Open Cup and Champions League is enough. Thats the way the rest of the world does it.

  2. Simon Provan, September 22, 2010 at 2:08 p.m.

    Mark, you statement that "that's the way the rest of the world does it" in regards to no playoffs is simply not true. Almost every South American league has playoffs, Mexico has playoffs and even Greece has a playoff system (which is a heck of a lot more complicated than than the MLS format). What you mean to say is "that's the way most of Europe does it." And even if that is how most of Europe does it, who cares? This isn't Europe. It's America, where even the casual fan gets into the playoffs of leagues they don't care about otherwise.

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