There was a moment from Alajuelense's 5-2 win over D.C. United last February that sort of crystalizes the whole CONCACAF Champions League experience for MLS teams. It wasn't the penalty to open the scoring, or the blown offside trap that led to Los Manudos' second. It wasn't when, midway through the second half, United put three straight good looks well wide of goal.
No, it came at the bitter end. In the 89th minute Steve Birnbaum had just gotten onto the end of a Fabian Espindola cross, heading home to cut the hosts' lead to 4-2. That would have been a bad result for D.C., but not a complete disaster.
This was the complete disaster:
Less than two minutes after scoring, Birnbaum fluffed a clearance, the entire United backline froze, and Jonathan McDonald hammered home from six yards out, in the process hammering home the final nail in D.C.'s coffin. You don't come back from 5-2 down, and they didn't, and that was that.
This was obviously a bad play on Birnbaum's part, but it has to be noted how flat-footed and slow to react everybody on D.C. manages to be. Taylor Kemp stays wide; Miguel Aguilar plays a non-existent passing lane; Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell jog forward; and, given the disarray, I'm going to guess that Andrew Dykstra wasn't hosting a clinic on communication and vocal organization.
It's a "worst-case scenario" type of goal, but it's also emblematic of the struggle teams all over the world face in the first few games of any season. Match sharpness is a real thing -- many players say it's much more of a mental issue than a physical one -- and it's hard to acquire that via practice.
"Well, [MLS teams] are still in preseason, it's not like their games have started yet, so that's where the difficulty lies," former LA Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, who now plays for Pachuca in Liga MX, told ESPN FC over the weekend. "We're seven games into the season and we're pretty much hitting full stride, so it's going to be very difficult for the MLS teams to be match fit."
Don't take the above as an excuse; take it as a reason, and take it as something to look for as MLS teams square off against their Liga MX foes over the next couple of weeks.
Does D.C. look sharp? Are all of LA's new acquisitions on the same page? Can Seattle close gaps given their new formation? Is it clear that RSL understand how to track Andre-Pierre Gignac?
Those questions are "strategy, tactical planning and march sharpness"-oriented, not "raw talent" or "Home field advantage" oriented. It's the first part -- the strategy, tactical planning and march sharpness -- that has doomed MLS teams in the past.
Now, a quick rundown of the match-ups:
Los Gallos Blancos aren't a particularly good team. They're currently 2-4-1, which is good for 13th in Liga MX, and haven't really been able to settle into a rhythm. Partially this is because they're a very direct, 4-2-3-1 team that lacks inventiveness in the final third, but mostly this is because they have not been good defensively. They've given up multiple goals in three of their last four games and have posted just one shutout this season.
This is a golden opportunity for D.C. to sneak a road goal (or two) and control their own destiny heading back to RFK Stadium. Even a 1-0 loss is fine, though 2-1 or 3-2 is even better.
Of note is that United have toyed with a 4-5-1 in preseason, with Espindola as a lone forward. It's an ultra-pragmatic formation for road games -- though it doesn't always work. They played that same lineup last year at Alajuelense, after all.
The most successful club team in CONCACAF history is Club America, which should give you an idea of the size of the hurdle Seattle have to take. Las Aguilas have been kind of inconsistent so far in the Clausura, following up 3-0 thrashing of Atlas with an embarrassing 4-1 home loss to Pachuca last month, then crushing Santos 2-0 before posting a pair of disappointing back-to-back draws, 1-1 at Veracruz and 3-3 at home to Cruz Azul this past weekend.
That later game was a testy affair, with both Oribe Peralta and Darwin Quintero sent off. That means there's a good chance those two guys will start and America will play their usual, high-pressure 4-4-2.
Seattle, if they're going to win, probably need to dominate in central midfield and use quick transition play to take advantage when Aguilas right back Paul Aguilar overlaps.
Look at where Andreas Ivanschitz scores from here:
That's the spot for Seattle to overload.
It is unfair to call any team in any two-legged playoffs "no-hopers," but it really does feel that way for RSL. They had the bad luck of drawing Tigres, who've been the best team in Mexico for the past 12 months and in Gignac have arguably the best forward in the region. Tigres haven't been perfect, but Gignac has -- he has seven goals in six games so far this season. No one else in Liga MX has more than two.
So how do RSL keep track of him? It'll be tough, since Tigres are masterful at swinging the ball from side-to-side through the play of regista Guido Pizarro. This will put a lot of pressure on RSL playmaker Javier Morales to do some serious defensive work in cutting down passing angles, and if he's not up to it then the hosts will be able to overload the flanks and pull the RSL fullbacks toward the touchline. When that happens, good center forwards find time and space -- and goals.
This one will be tough.
See that Sounders goal above? That came against the Galaxy. So did three others in that game, and I don't think it's unfair to say that LA's cadre of new arrivals have a steep learning curve ahead of them.
The Galaxy walk into this game with a new goalkeeper, two new defenders and a new d-mid, and thus far they have looked like what you'd expect: A team of veterans getting to know each other, and struggling a little bit.
On the flip side Santos have been only okay. A good January has turned into a bad February, as two losses and a draw have dropped los Verdiblancos into ninth place. Cape Verde international Djaniny has been active and works hard, but he's also profligate in front of net. The same has applied to wingers Andres Renteria and Nestor Calderon -- not a good look from a team that primarily plays a 4-2-3-1.
One wild card to pay attention to: New LA arrivals Jelle Van Damme and Nigel De Jong are, um, physical:
They probably need a primer on CONCACAF officiating, and the dangers of leaving one's feet.
If not, the climb will get that much steeper.