This is the annual benchmark, to borrow a phrase from Jurgen Klinsmann. This is the gauntlet that MLS teams have to run in order to climb the ladder and ascend into the ranks of global "leagues of choice."
And as usual, the initial returns are mixed. There was some good, and there was some bad. And there was, in the end, two painful results. Such is life in February for MLS teams.
Let's start in Mexico:
This one was so good, from United's point of view, for the first 70 minutes. The visitors kept their shape almost perfectly, were in sync along the back line, and were consistently dangerous on set pieces. They also limited midfield turnovers and always had a shield in place to make certain the hosts had no purchase in Zone 14.
And then Marcelo Sarvas pushed forward and everything went wrong.
Sarvas, who was probably the best player on the field most of the night, got on the ball in the 70th minute and did something he hadn't done all game: He pushed all the way up into the attacking third, then bent in a cross. It found no one, and with so many of United's midfielders rotating to cover space, Queretaro were able to find time on the ball and then tilt the field with a long, diagonal switch. Three touches later and goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra was picking the ball out of his own net.
Damage done, but a 1-0 road loss isn't fatal. This is:
The guy who got the assist? That's Sinha, a 39-year-old warlock who will probably still be playing when he's 49. He never runs, he never makes contact with opposing players, he never tackles. He just sprays brilliant passes.
And if you have him facing toward his own goal, away from yours... you don't peel off from him, let him turn and pick out an attacker. Sean Franklin took – and deserved – a bunch of flack for flubbing the clearance, but the problem with this play is rookie Julian Buescher failing to understand his defensive priorities. No. 1 on that list is "Don't let Sinha pick a pass!"
This was a really, really cruel result for a D.C. team that played much better than most thought they would (they hit the woodwork twice and forced a few very nice saves out of Tiago Volpi, Queretaro's magnificent 'keeper) and a really cruel introduction to pro soccer for Buescher. He's a remarkable passer of the ball and a smart player overall, and I doubt he'll make that mistake again.
But once is all it takes in this tournament. A 2-0 hole is not impossible to climb out of, but it would be a shock if D.C. managed it next week at RFK.
First things first: Seattle actually looked really good and really natural in a sort of lopsided 4-3-3 for this one. I was surprised at how snugly the midfield fit together and Clint Dempsey looked reborn in terms of his energy on both sides of the ball. Jordan Morris was a little bit lost at right wing, and Nelson Valdez struggled some to provide some hold-up play, but both had moments when they were threatening and sharp. You don't get 54-percent possession and a boatload of chances against a team as good as Club America if you're doing everything wrong.
However... the back line was not sharp, and unfortunately they were not smart, and that meant a winnable game turned into a soul-crushing 2-2 draw.
By "not smart" I'm referencing the first Club America goal on the evening, which came 90 seconds after a spectacular free kick from Dempsey gave the Sounders a 1-0 lead, and 60 seconds before the halftime whistle. Seattle had lived dangerously the entire half with their high line, and at that point – with a lead, with a clock ticking toward the break – there was no need to be so aggressive. Doing so just invited las Aguilas to use their speed, and that's exactly what happened when Darwin Quintero equalized.
The "not sharp" part came on the second Club America goal, which was simply a mess:
- Chad Marshall makes a mistake by not pushing his line up hard. He's the second defender – the near-side center back – and it's his responsibility to push out and set the line.
- Brad Evans makes a mistake by anticipating where the line is going to be, but not correcting for the mistake Marshall has made in positioning. He's confused as to whether he should take the man or play the line. He makes the wrong choice, as this play demanded emergency defense.
- Tyrone Mears is two yards deeper than he should be, keeping the whole damn thing onside anyway. Plus he's so preoccupied with Osvaldo Martinez (No. 10) that he allowed two forwards goal-side. Wut.
To be fair, that's a perfect ball from Rubens Sambueza, and that's a classic Oribe Peralta goal. Plus Marshall might have been screened. And it's worth noting that Evans' body shape at the time of contact is textbook:
But that's not a goal I think the Sounders concede next month, or the month after. That's an "oh damn I need to get some reps in a match" goal from three veterans.
They'll get their reps next week at the Estadio Azteca, needing to go down there and get a win (or a 3-3 draw, which is exactly what Cruz Azul did this past weekend. Just sayin'). Nothing is impossible, but history has not been kind to MLS teams traveling down south.
So Tuesday night was another benchmark, and another reality check. If you want a silver lining, I think both fan bases should be relatively happy with the way their teams played, even if they are totally within their rights to lament the results.
I'll be doing the same.