Voices: Michael Lahoud

CCL takeaways: The good, the bad and the ugly for MLS teams in first legs

We all know the story of MLS teams in the Concacaf Champions League, with no winner emerging from the league in the competition's modern iteration. In recent years, various teams have fallen short at the quarterfinal stage. However, this edition of the competition has the feel that history might just be in the making.

For the first time ever, five MLS teams are in the Quarterfinals! With the first leg of games in the books, here’s how each team fared…

The Good

The 2020 Supporters' Shield winners have gotten their quarterfinal tie against Atlanta United off to a roaring start with Polish Striker, Kacper Przybylko netting two goals and providing one assist in a 3-0 win Tuesday night in Atlanta.

This is particularly promising for Union fans since Przybylko was often times close, but no cigar in front of goal last year. But what a difference a year makes! The man from Bielefeld, seems to particularly love CCL, and is the tournament’s current top goal scorer with four goals.

But let’s be honest, their first half was unimpressive. If they want to get to the semifinals, the Union will want to avoid sitting back and absorbing Atlanta’s pressure in the second leg. Head Coach Jim Curtin should take note of the second-half turnaround by having his team press Atlanta. Also, keep it simple and start the dancing Brazilian Sergio Santos, who made a sizable impact when he came on at halftime.

One thing of note is Venezuelan defensive midfielder Jose Martinez will be missing in action for the second leg through suspension. That's a big blow on the defensive end, especially as Curtin doesn’t have much depth a defensive midfield. Curtin will have to reshuffle the pack, potentially by pushing defender Jack Elliott into the midfield, and bring in Scottish center back Stuart Findlay. Oh and play Anthony “Tony Montana” Fontana’; the kid tends to score in big games.

It ain’t over until it’s over. The Portland Timbers proved just that as they came back to get a valuable 1-1 draw against Liga MX giants, Club America.

The first half was one to forget for the Timbers. Club America were all over them; baiting Portland's center backs into pressing traps and causing turnovers by sitting in a compact mid-block defensively. The Timbers were so close to escaping Club America’s shoot-on-site approach, but Argentinian left back Claudio Bravo unnecessarily lunged in on Richard Sanchez, who was going away from goal, and gave up a penalty kick.

The second half saw a completely different Portland Timbers. They scrapped their intricate passing style and went direct to their wingers with diagonal balls, by-passing Club America’s midfield press. Dairon Asprilla and Yimmi Chara started coming to life, and both had clear-cut chances to level the game but they couldn't find the far post on both occasions.

Portland kept throwing numbers forward and their persistence finally paid off when striker Felipe Mora was cool, calm and collected enough to slot home his penalty kick in the 97th minute. It proved to be the last kick of the match. With a finish like that, Gio Savarese and the Timber Army should have all of the confidence that they can get a result in the return leg at the Estadio Azteca.

The Bad

During a poor start, the Crew midfield, and Artur in particular, seemed to be in need of an early wakeup call. They were given just that when Monterrey’s early pressure paid dividends with a 10th minute goal.

But fortunately for the Crew, they had former Tigres star Lucas Zelarayan on a mission against old foes Rayados. The MLS Cup MVP looks like he hasn’t missed a beat since his standout performance in last year’s final against Seattle Sounders. He came to life in the second half, with a goal and an assist to put the Crew ahead 2-1.

The Argentinian playmaker showed some fancy footwork, twisting Adrian Mora inside and out inside the box, and had the wherewithal to pick out an open Milton Valenzuela at the far post for the tying goal. Then he scored what was initially thought to be the winner, showing desire and acrobatics to latch onto a cross and find the bottom corner of the net.

However, missed chances came to bite the Crew back in their keister, as Monterrey found an equalizer, and second away goal, at the death. Caleb Porter’s team will feel they still very much have a chance in the second leg, especially after their second half display but the absence of Zelarayan through suspension will be a huge blow. He's the man who makes them tick.

The Ugly

After the miracle they pulled off against 2020 Liga MX Apetura champions, Leon, in the previous round, the Concacaf world was forced to do a double take at MLS. Cruz Azul seemed to take note of how dangerous this seemingly unsuspecting TFC team can be; they went after them from the first whistle.

Chris Armas’ gamble to bring Jozy Altidore into the team backfired quickly, as the US International’s turnover created the counterattack that led to Cruz Azul’s opening goal. And what an opening goal it was, as Cruz Azul attacker, Brayan Angulo, cut in from the left and went top bins on Alex Bono.

When Toronto responded with a Jonathan Osorio equalizer a few minutes later, I thought they were going to use that momentum to take over the game. However, The Reds were undone by poor marking and ball watching on set pieces, as Michael Bradley was beat on a header at the near post for the knockout blow of the night. It’ll be an uphill battle for Toronto, since going to Mexico City two goals down, is no joke. But, when in doubt play the kids! They’ll bring the youthful energy and fight that could spark a comeback.

17,533 fans showed up to Mercedes-Benz Stadium expecting to be treated to an entertaining first leg. Instead, Atlanta United provided them with a night to regret.

It looked so promising for them early on with Ezequiel Barco and Josef Martinez shredding the Philadelphia Union backline to bits. It would have been at least 2-0 if Atlanta’s star-studded attack capitalized on their 60 percent possession and some golden first-half opportunities but Andre Blake was there to save the day (again) for Philly.

Atlanta, though, will still be scratching their heads, wondering how it all went wrong in the second half, giving up three away goals in the process. Still, an early goal will do Atlanta A LOT of good in the second leg. They should look to be the aggressors again from the first whistle, aiming for anything in goal that isn’t Andre Blake. Plus, the fact that Josef Martinez is continuing to gain match fitness and sharpness should have Gabriel Heinze’s team still holding onto a glimmer of hope in Leg 2.