Elation and long-desired validation? Or cautious pessimism in the face of inevitable doom?

After a historic 24 hours for Major League Soccer to kick off the 2021 Concacaf Champions League – 1-0 wins against Alajuelense and Saprissa in Costa Rica, a multi-goal draw in Honduras against Marathon and a draw via an own goal at Club Leon – I’m torn. Is this good because four MLS teams are a step closer to the quarterfinals? Or is it bad because it sets us all up for an even bigger letdown?

There’s a lot to unpack there. I’ll readily admit, I’ve got some regional baggage to work through. I am, undoubtedly, scarred by this tournament. Any shred of joy is destined to be followed by pain, or so says my brain. It’s 13 years of Pavlovian responses embedded in my psyche.

I can reverse jinx all I want, but we all know CCL is more fun when you suspend reason and lean into the joy. So let’s be joyful! Good things are good! Bad things happen to other clubs! We’re winning big games in what amounts to preseason! MLS could very well have a team in all four quarterfinals! This could be the year! Believe! (It probably won’t be, though. Keep the jinx alive!)

Here are some quick thoughts from Wednesday night’s action.

Better to be lucky than good!

First things first, I am not here to take anything away from Toronto FC’s 1-1 draw in Leon. Good things are good, right?! That’s a hell of a result, even more so considering the #PlayYourKids roster Chris Armas put out thanks to injuries to multiple starters.

What does it tell us about what Armas has in store for Toronto the rest of the way … or even in the second leg? I’d argue not much. We got 30 minutes playing on an even footing and an hour of survival. The lineup wasn’t first-choice and Armas admitted last week that the Reds are still working toward what he wants to see. For the first game of the season, who cares about the context when you can bring an away goal back to Florida? 

Who cares that Leon biffed a handful of big chances? Who cares that Toronto didn’t create much and it took an “Hold on, did that really go in?” own goal to get on the board? The midfield and attack will change once Alejandro Pozuelo and Jonathan Osorio are back. Chris Mavinga might be the club’s most important player, and the center back missed out. So did starting goalkeeper Quentin Westberg.

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The good news is that Michael Bradley looked aggressive and active in more advanced positions, even if the kids around him — other than Noble Okello, who had some smooth moments — weren’t quite up to the technical or tactical level necessary to put Leon under pressure. The bad news is that Jozy Altidore appeared to be favoring his hamstring when he came off. TBD on the severity of that knock, if it’s an issue at all. I do know Patrick Mullins is down to Concacaf if called upon.

Toronto were nowhere close to their best and got the job done. That’s basically the CCL job description for MLS teams and it’s encouraging to see. I remain, however, cautiously pessimistic. Away goals don’t matter if Leon go to Florida and win. The result is good, but it will be temporary joy unless Toronto can finish the job.

Union still have their 2020 mojo

Philly has plenty of talent, but their success has been about the strength of the collective. I’ve wondered aloud repeatedly whether selling two Best XI players in Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson (and losing stalwart Ray Gaddis to retirement) might affect their ability to stay among MLS’s elite.

TBD on that, but there were encouraging signs for Jim Curtin in his team’s 1-0 win at the Purple Monster. First, the replacements for McKenzie and Aaronson – Norwegian center back Jakob Glesnes and homegrown attacker Anthony Fontana – kept the level high. Ernst Tanner didn’t need to go outside the league or his own team for replacements for best-in-league losses. He’d already signed them, and Curtin and his staff prepared them for this moment.

Same thing for Olivier Mbaizo, who the club seasoned at Bethlehem Steel before he assumed the starting right back job. The recently-capped Cameron international seems to have a knack for arriving in the final third at the right time and delivering a dangerous ball across the box when presented with the opportunity. That led to the lone goal from Kacper Przybylko and a historic result for the Union at Saprissa.

They are now the favorites in this series. That comes with expectations. There’s a path to the semifinals opening up…

When red is yellow…

I state the obvious when I say that this is a horrendous tackle from Ricardo Blanco on Union left back Kai Wagner. I state the obvious when I say that’s a red card 99 times out of 100, or at the very least ought to be.

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I am, thanks to years of watching this competition, not at all surprised that the one time out of 100 popped up and referee Ismael Cornejo produced a yellow card.

I’m not a professional referee, but I play one on Instant Replay. I just cannot imagine how this doesn’t meet the threshold for serious foul play. It’s not just on Cornejo, either. His assistant referee was standing right in front of this collision. Excessive force? Oh yeah. Endangering the safety of an opponent? Come on, is that even a question?

I encourage you to go read Philly captain Alejandro Bedoya on the decision. His quote includes phrases such as "Welcome to Concacaf, right?" and “that was a disgraceful decision.” Player safety is important!

Are four positive results a trend or circumstance?

Neither? Somewhere in between? Let’s hold off on grand conclusions until at least the end of next week?

There are asterisks here, and that’s the case for circumstance. Four MLS teams went to Central America and got positive results, and a reasonable expectation is Columbus Crew SC do the same Thursday night at Nicaraguan side Real Esteli (8 pm ET | FS1, TUDN). While the travel and conditions were certainly tough, there were no fans in the stands other than in Leon, and then only a couple thousand. 

There’s still 90 minutes to play, the margins are still tight and MLS won’t have their normal home-field advantage, either. We’ll see if that matters.

Ultimately, though, I’d argue Round of 16 success is a trend. In the past five years, MLS has advanced four teams to the quarterfinals three times and three twice, on average one more per tournament than the five years prior. Here is MLS’s head-to-head CCL series record since 2018: 7-10 vs. Liga MX, 3-0 vs. Costa Rica, 3-0 against El Salvador/Guatemala/Dominican Republic, 2-2 vs. Honduras and 1-2 vs. Panama.

So “upsets” still happen – and those are still on the table in three of four series – but our Pavlovian expectations probably ought to be adjusted. MLS teams, outside of direct Liga MX matchups, should expect to get out of the first round. To expect less would be letting ourselves off the hook.

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