In each of the four head-to-head matchups between MLS teams and Liga MX foes in the Concacaf Champions League, there’s no question where the advantage lies.
The Mexican teams are nearly halfway through their league seasons, the MLS teams are still two weeks away from opening day. In Mexico, rosters are set; in MLS, players are still being added and deleted as teams rush to meet the salary-cap compliance date of next Tuesday.
No team has been shaken up more than the Galaxy, which suffered a 4-0 beatdown by Seattle last Wednesday at StubHub Center in the final preseason CCL tuneup for both teams. Played on a field saturated by driving rains and covered with puddles in the second half, the game provided a glimpse into how the teams have changed since they met in the knockout round last October in a game won by the Sounders, 3-2.
Seattle is using a 4-3-3 formation that deploys Clint Dempsey, Nelson Valdez and rookie Jordan Morris up top. Obafemi Martins is finalizing a transfer to a Chinese club, which deprived the Sounders of a crucial element in its showdown with the richest and most popular team in Mexico, Club America, starting Tuesday at CenturyLink Field. Martins scored 40 goals and logged 23 assists in 72 league games after arriving midway through the 2013 season yet failed to score in eight playoff appearances.
“The timing is not ideal, I think that’s stating the obvious,” said Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey during a press conference Monday. “When you lose a player who’s had an impact on your club the last couple of years a couple of weeks before your season, that’s not how you choose to do it. But it is what it is and you’ve got to adjust.
“We’ve got a lot of good players here. If you look at the team we’re going to field against Club America it’s going to look a lot like, nine or 10 guys who started for us in the playoffs last year, and we are healthier than we were in that Dallas playoff game.” The Sounders lost to FCD in the conference semifinals on penalty kicks, 4-2, after finished tied, 3-3, on aggregate.
Against the Galaxy, Dempsey tucked inside from the left wing to open up space that left mid Andres Ivanschitz, who scored the first and last goal, and left back Joevin Jones exploited repeatedly. Morris spent most of his time in the right channel and on the right wing; he got in behind the Galaxy back line twice to serve up balls that Dempsey and Ivanschitz put away emphatically.
The Seattle attack will miss Martins, whose robust yet technical play often conjured up mesmerizing combinations with Dempsey and others. Valdez brings more prowess in the air and other attributes of a target striker; he can drop back into midfield, as he did to push a ball into the right channel that Morris squared to Ivanschitz for the final goal.
Before playing the Sounders, the Galaxy had beaten San Jose, 1-0, in Las Vegas. Several of its newcomers have only recently joined the team and taken places in the starting lineup, which looks radically different: no more does Omar Gonzalez anchor the back line and like his former LA teammate, midfielder Juninho has also found a new home in Mexico.
Ashley Cole at left back, Jelle Van Demme in central defense, and Nigel De Jong and Emmanuel Boateng in midfield provide considerable experience that should prove valuable once they adjust to Bruce Arena’s system and their new teammates. That process will take time, as Arena cited in comments Monday in advance of the Galaxy’s CCL series against Santos Laguna, which starts at StubHub Center.
“Everybody will be looking at Wednesday,” said Arena. “But for us, two months into the MLS season should give us a pretty good idea of where we’re at.”
Captain Robbie Keane isn’t looking as far ahead. Roster changes, scheduling issues, tough opposition in late February, etc., are relevant but not conclusive.
“That’s something we’ll have to see on Wednesday,” he said of jelling and conditioning. "Do they have an advantage on us? Of course they do. From day one of the preseason, with the schedule the way it is, it is what it is in MLS.
“For any team to go and win the Concacaf is certainly going to be difficult but if anyone has a chance, it’s certainly us.”