The 2021 Concacaf Champions League is down to its final four, and the Philadelphia Union are MLS' sole survivors. Never forget the iconic words of my #CCLFever-wizened colleague Andrew Wiebe: The free space is disappointment.
Under some new scheduling wrinkles, the tournament now pauses for several months before taking its time with the home stretch, the semifinals picking up in mid-August and the single-leg final set for late October. On paper that provides a valuable chance for MLS teams to rest, recuperate and reach full strength through the meat of their domestic slate; we’ll see if it transpires that way in reality.
Here’s a look at where we stand now, and perhaps a bit about why.
The Union didn’t play their best in Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Atlanta, but they didn’t have to. The damage was done in that wild 3-0 first-leg result at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In the absence of a head-to-head test against an elite Liga MX team like the other series – the DOOPers will get a plateful of that with Club America in late summer – I’m filing Leg 1 as their most promising CCL data point so far.
It was a very Liga MX way to manage this series: ruthlessly exploiting relatively fleeting phases of advantage to put the opponent behind the 8-ball in both aggregate and psychological terms. ATLUTD controlled most of their home match and played well on Tuesday. Yet something’s missing from their glorious 2018 salad days: that arrogant, expressive snarl that Frank de Boer seems to have defanged during his time in charge.
HIGHLIGHTS: Philadelphia Union vs. Atlanta United FC | May 05, 2021
So many of those strong characters are gone now, and Josef Martinez – who personified it – is still working his way back from his ACL tear. So when Jose Martinez and Kacper Przybylko, and eventually even Jim Curtin himself, asserted how this tie was going to look and feel, the Five Stripes didn’t have enough in response.
After the CCL draw, I mused that Philly were wired in a way that could serve them well in this weird, unforgiving tourney. Those street smarts are probably the best weapon they have against Las Aguilas in the semifinals, especially since they’re hosting the decisive second leg at Subaru Park.
They will be laid siege to in Mexico City. If they can turn their half of the pitch into a meat grinder for América and make some hay out of that 30-something percentage of the ball they’re likely to possess, they’ve got a shot.
On balance, I don’t think a TFC side in a profound state of transition has too much to be ashamed of. Relying on so many wet-behind-the-ears kids, beset by injuries to stars and not even at home for their "home leg," they were heroes to outwit Club Leon in the Round of 16. La Maquina in full flow was simply an even taller mountain to climb.
Above, I touched on the psychological aspect of this event. You could see the full weight of that 3-1 first-leg loss when Toronto's heads and shoulders slumped after Bryan Angulo conjured up this outrageous bit of quality on Tuesday:
GOAL: Bryan Angulo, Cruz Azul - 27th minute
Toronto’s central defense looks like a hodgepodge to me right now, some of it due to circumstances out of their control, some not, and I’m not sure what they want it to look like or how they get there. Leakiness in this area is swiftly punished in continental competition.
But it’s just one facet of a bigger roster Rubik’s Cube for Ali Curtis, Chris Armas & Co., who are wrangling a major personnel evolution for a club that wants to be in contention for hardware at all times. That’s a longer-term project than one year’s CCL allows for.
Over the winter, MLS observers ooohed and aaahed repeatedly as Crew SC followed up their imperious MLS Cup triumph with one savvy free-agent signing after another (among other transactions) to bolster an already-strong squad. Club president Tim Bezbatchenko is one of the top executives in the league and he really flashed his chops ahead of this tournament.
It surely frustrated him and coach Caleb Porter to no end how little of their top-end talent was available at Estadio BBVA Bancomer on Wednesday night. Kevin Molino, Vito Wormgoor, Milton Valenzuela, Aidan Morris, Perry Kitchen and Marlon Hairston were out injured. The inimitable Lucas Zelarayan was suspended on yellow-card accumulation. Gyasi Zardes and Darlington Nagbe patched up their knocks enough to play, but surely weren’t at full speed.
HIGHLIGHTS: Monterrey vs. Columbus Crew SC | May 06, 2021
Then to have a trusted international veteran like Eloy Room flub a speculative early cross-shot to hand the hosts a soft-earned lead three minutes after kickoff? At that point, the Yellow Football Team were clinging to the precipice with an extremely good Rayados bunch stepping hard on their fingertips.
I and others have written at length over the years about the brutal physiological quandary the timing of CCL poses to MLS teams, who have to go from offseason jog to high-intensity sprint against high-level, in-form opposition in a matter of weeks without deeply damaging themselves for the looming marathon of the regular season. It’s a tightrope that will look like "Mission: Impossible" until someone actually pulls it off successfully.
Here’s how Porter laid it out in his postgame presser:
A decent chunk of this Timbers side was built with Concacaf in mind, with experienced imports who’ve lived through CCL or CCL-type challenges before in other parts of the world. And it looked like it for long stretches of this series, which could have pivoted in either direction when Diego Valeri dispatched a 64th-minute penalty kick to cut the Mexican giants’ aggregate lead to 3-2. Portland just needed another away goal to advance.
Left back Claudio Bravo, a seven-figure commodity and one of their most talented offseason signings, got pushed under a harsh spotlight in this series before he’s really settled in his new surroundings – and it cost PTFC. The Argentine conceded a penalty in each leg and rarely looked comfortable.
Maybe it’s harsh to expect a player in his situation to keep up with the pace set by one of the most expensively assembled teams in this hemisphere, and I don’t wish to pile all the blame on Bravo. Portland were fairly wasteful in front of goal in both legs and overall couldn’t quite seize enough of those pivotal, fleeting moments that are the key to mounting such an upset, especially when not at full strength.
“The fact that Mexican teams are at a different level in their competition, they actually are going into the playoffs right now, we are starting our season. And I think definitely there's a difference. But I still believe that we have to continue to compete,” said Portland head coach Gio Savarese postgame.
HIGHLIGHTS: América vs. Portland Timbers | May 06, 2021
“I thought that we were competitive in this home-and-away challenge with Club America. And the only thing for us if we had a few other players healthy, I think we could’ve competed even more, on a bigger scale. Nevertheless we still, as I said before, at the 2-1, we believed that with one goal, we could have found it at any moment and still go through.”
One of the woulda-coulda-shouldas of this year’s new CCL calendar is that Savarese’s squad, like Columbus, might have been a bigger force to be reckoned with later, when the final two rounds unfold closer to the home stretch of their season. But first they had to survive a night at the Azteca, and that’s a tough job indeed.