I’m tired of writing this column. I don’t want to do it anymore. Unfortunately – cynics might say predictably – Tuesday night left me without much of a choice in the matter.
Free space is disappointment, same as it ever was. An MLS team has never won the Concacaf Champions League, and probably won’t this year, either. I’m a hopeful, positive person, but I’m also a realist. Liga MX are prohibitive favorites now and forever, or at least until someone else – whether from MLS, Costa Rica, Panama or other – earns their way under a confetti shower.
Tuesday night hurts for any number of reasons. It hurt most because the New York Red Bulls were supposed to be different.
New York dropped a 5-1 aggregate defeat on Club Tijuana last year, and that was without Kaku or Tim Parker truly integrated into the squad. They won the Supporters’ Shield. They have Best XI talent. They have a style and a system that’s tough to deal with even for teams who play against it regularly. That punchless Chivas loss in the semifinals was painful, but it taught the Red Bulls a lesson.
This year was supposed to be different. Instead, it was déjà vu.
Good chances, no goals. This time it was Santos Laguna goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco’s turn to deny Bradley Wright-Phillips and company. Breakaway? Snuffed out. Tap-in on the doorstep? Even better save. Last gasp drive in stoppage time? Palmed over the bar. Meanwhile, Santos scored twice in six minutes on either side of halftime, and banked a couple road goals for Leg 2.
Was it bad luck? Early season rust? Simply a bad performance? All of the above?
In CCL, there will always be excuses. The only way to win is not to make any.
They lost Saturday night, 3-0, to Club Leon, were scheduled to travel to Guadalajara on Sunday to connect to New York City and then had their flights canceled because of weather. The team split up to make it in time for the match, with some arriving Monday night and others on Tuesday. The weather at Red Bull Arena was frigid, in the teens. Didn’t matter.
Santos handled their business. They’ve been here before.
Now, the Red Bulls aren’t completely out of it. They created chances! They looked like the better team for long stretches! That’s cool and all, but they face this…
Those numbers aren’t very encouraging.
I went back and looked at the six series (of 21) in which MLS defeated Liga MX on aggregate in this competition. Only one MLS team lost the first leg, and that came back in 2013 when the Seattle Sounders made history by advancing past Tigres. They minimized the damage in a 1-0 loss in Monterrey, then advanced via a 3-1 win at home. The Red Bulls won’t have that second-leg luxury.
Time to make history or call it early, New York. Same for you Houston. You fought hard for 75 minutes, didn’t pull out of a 50-50 or cede an inch to a Tigres side without Andre Pierre-Gignac, but which didn’t lack for star power or support at BBVA Compass Stadium. The Dynamo did everything right until Tigres did it just a little bit better.
All it took was three minutes. Enner Valencia got the first in the 78th minute. Portland Timbers target Julian Quinones the second in the 81s. A few minutes later, Tigres fans pulled out their phones and put on a light show. Here we go again, came the familiar refrain from MLS Twitter as Tigres won 2-0.
Before you Google “CCL, 2015-16,” I’ll jog your memory. That year the since-abandoned group stage spit out four teams from MLS and four from Liga MX. Every quarterfinal was a continental measuring stick. All four Mexican teams went through by a cumulative score of 15-5.
Then, as on Tuesday night, MLS simply didn’t measure up. The hope born of the Montreal Impact’s run to the final the year prior proved premature. Just as the hope born of MLS’s marked improvement and close call in this tournament a year ago is likely to lead us down the familiar path to pain yet again.
And yet, all it takes is one to make history. Might that be Sporting Kansas City? Or perhaps Atlanta United? Maybe even the Red Bulls or Dynamo? I sure hope so, but for the time being I’m with the cynics. Gotta protect my heart.