A 4-2 defeat in the second leg of the Concacaf Champions League final left Montreal players and fans disappointed but proud nonetheless.
One of the most overused words in professional sports is “respect,” but it got a lot of play Wednesday in the aftermath of a dominant Club America display at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
The Impact’s dramatic run through a qualifying round, a group phase and two knockout rounds to the final accrued ample doses of respect for the players, coaches, executives and fans. Just three years after entering MLS, Montreal enjoyed a brief sojourn as its favorite son, the upstart challenger to a mighty Mexican giant awash in tradition and culture and success.
In the final act, the challenger toppled to the canvas, felled by powerful blows applied to devastating effect. The countering team got countered time and time again. Right back Nigel Reo-Coker took a lot of blame for the attacks that overran him in the right-back position, yet the entire midfield seemed to disappear at times once Club America had pushed out of its own half.
Since the formation of MLS in 1996, it has tweaked rules, repeatedly overhauled its procedures and policies, experimented with formats, and taken myriad measures to establish itself as a viable, competitive operation. Its battle for respect is constant, and at times its head coaches as well as commissioner Don Garber have bristled at criticism when the topics of quality and respect are raised.
Yet respect works both ways and while MLS is always striving to narrow perceived gaps between it and Liga MX, on Wednesday the beaten challengers gave their conquerors their due praise.
“The second half we came out flat and got punished by a good team,” said midfielder Dilly Duka. “That’s an unselfish team that we’re playing against. They move the ball well, they’re technically sound and they found the open man every time and they put it in. It sucks but you’ve to give it up to them.”
“Giving it up” for the other team isn’t a regular element in MLS-Liga MX encounters. There hasn’t been much respect, mutual or otherwise. If an MLS team does prevail, the officiating is routinely blamed, and far too many games have been marred by scuffles involving players, coaches and team officials. Yet the same problems often arise in Concacaf matches that don’t involve Liga MX or MLS teams.
As far as rivalries are concerned, the fans of Costa Rican clubs Saprissa, Herediano, and Alajuelense are frustrated that under the current format none of their teams have been able to capture the regional title or even reach the finals. The semifinals this year contrasted sharply: Herediano won the first leg of its semi against America, 3-0, and was crushed, 6-0, in the second leg. Montreal scraped past Alajuelense on away goals, 2-0, after the two legs ended tied, 4-4.
Cited as a major factor in Wednesday's finale was the crisp, cohesive attacking play of Benedetto and forward partner Oribe Peralta, but truth be told, America looked sharper and more dangerous in both legs.
“They’re one of the best teams in Mexico,” said Reo-Coker, who didn’t get the help he desperately needed as America stormed forward in the second half. “They play good football, they played as a team, and they took their chances. They break very well and they break very decisively.”
Some decisive counterattacking had propelled Montreal into the finals but once America had evened the aggregate at 2-2, its class and efficiency prevailed. Nearly every turnover produced a threatening attack and when the chances came America showed its opponent what to do with them.
“That’s why I say there’s such a big difference between the Champions League and MLS,” said Reo-Coker. “When you get opportunities in the Champions League, you have to take them. You’re not going to get as many opportunities as you would during the MLS. That just shows the quality level and the step-up in football quality that we’re playing at.
“When you get chances you’ve got to take them and we just didn’t take enough chances that we had in the first half, and the second half we got punished.”
For decades, America has been signing international stars such as Argentine striker Dario Benedetto, the hat-trick hero of the second leg, but despite its wealth and power it doesn’t dominate Liga MX. The Mexican league doesn’t extol parity, per se, as does MLS, but its dominance in the CCL and solid performances in the Copa Libertadores as well as shifting fortunes among the top teams indicate a vibrant competitive environment.
Its teams may not go all out in the CCL group phase but once the knockout rounds ensue Liga MX foes can be very hard to beat. They don’t give up a lot of chances to the opposition and ruthlessly exploit their own.
Club America’s victory will perpetuate a sense of superiority south of the border. Since the current Champions League format was introduced for the 2008-9 competition, all seven editions of the tournament have been won by Mexican teams. Montreal’s brave run increased its stature and that of MLS around the region but whether or not any long-term respect was generated is difficult to quantify. What did emerge was an appreciation of a well-contested final series decided by quality and class despite the usual controversies about officiating.
“We did well to get here,” said Reo-Coker. “We worked hard to get here, and we deserved to be here. We wanted a result, but the reality is – being men and being able to look ourselves in the mirror – their quality came through in the end. They were the better team and they deserved to win today.”