The dreaded stat goes like this: MLS teams have a sobering 0-21-3 record against Mexican teams on their home turf heading into this year’s CONCACAF Champions League. And there’s room for that stat to get either dramatically worse or historically better, given that all five of the MLS teams in this year’s tournament will venture south of the border and test their fate at some point in the group stage.
First up? FC Dallas, who square off against Pumas UNAM in their Group C opener on Wednesday (midnight ET tape delay, Fox Soccer). As that game looms and all the other MLS squads prepare for their test, MLSsoccer.com spoke to four coaches who’ve tried their luck there before to come up with six simple keys to winning in Mexico, all with hopes of helping one lucky MLS team make history.
1. Plan Your Travel Accordingly
Of the five MLS teams in this year’s tournament, the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC are at a decided geographical disadvantage. The travel concerns alone are a hurdle for both of those teams, as the Sounders venture to Monterrey for the second straight year (1,931 miles) on Aug. 23, and Toronto face Pumas (2,024) on Sept. 14.
“One of the things we did last year was fly down two days before, but that made for long days,” Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid said. “Now we’re thinking about going halfway, to Dallas or Houston, and taking a smaller fight the day before the game. Then you’re not getting stuck with delays or connections and ending up with 15-hour travel days. Travel is something we’re definitely trying to make better.”
2. Get There Early, Right?
There are some conflicting opinions about when exactly a team should arrive in Mexico for the sake of acclimation. Columbus Crew head coach Robert Warzycha is of the mind that if your team is playing in Mexico City, get in and get out within 24 hours to avoid the prolonged exposure to altitude and rough pollution.
“You start to feel like you don’t have any muscles left,” Warzycha said. “Basically, you can’t run anymore by the time you get to the game.”
But Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis is all about getting his team’s feet on the ground early.
“The earlier you can go for games, the better,” Kreis said. “You get the flight out of your legs, you get a couple of good training sessions in the conditions you’ll be playing in, and the guys get a little more comfortable in a position they’ve probably never been in before in their life. Being down there the proper amount of time is important.”
3. Expect the Unexpected
There are inevitable factors for which teams simply can’t prepare. That’s the fun part of a trip anywhere in CONCACAF, right?
“Did you know that if you’re trying to get to your practice field in Mexico City, that can take you two or three hours?” Warzycha said. “Traffic to the game and from the field, you’d be surprised.”
Or think of the situation head coach Dominic Kinnear and the Houston Dynamo walked into for the all-important and truly epic second leg of their semifinal series against Pachuca in 2007.
“Admission to the game was free, I’m not kidding you,” Kinnear said. “That place was packed an hour-and-a-half before the game even started. I looked around and thought, ‘This is awesome.’”
The Dynamo lost the series 5-4 on aggregate.
4. Deal with the Field
Mexican surfaces are decidedly better than the poorly groomed pitches or the slick turf on the fringes of CONCACAF, but they’re still something to consider when it comes to strategy.
“The grass is just a little longer, it’s a little stickier, it slows the game down a little bit,” Schmid said. “They have to hit balls firmer and knock passes around a little firmer, because the ball’s going to hold up more than you’re used to.”
Said Kreis: “It’s a much spongier grass, and the ball simply doesn’t roll as far. The ball doesn’t bounce as high, and it tends to sit and play pretty dead. The quality of field is just different than what we’re used to.”
5. Possess and Attack
The trouble with playing Mexican teams? They don’t like to give the ball back after you lose it. MLS teams have learned that lesson all too well over the years, and it’s a tactical sore spot for any MLS club that thinks it can play a sloppy game and still escape unscathed.
“If you give the ball away carelessly, you’re working harder to get it back,” Schmid said. “There’s a tendency for teams to give the ball back to you in MLS, and that tendency is a little less so down there. We want to dictate the tempo, and if we can up the tempo, that’s to our advantage.”
Kreis is the first to agree, adding that RSL was vehement during their CCL run last time out to dictate the pace early and not sit back with a conservative approach.
“We weren’t going down there to tie 0-0, we were going down there to win the game,” Kreis said. “We were going to be aggressive in all aspects of our game and do it early. We weren’t going to sit back and wait. There was no doubt that’s how we wanted to face those games.”
6. Prepare for the Refs
Despite what some fans might think, Kinnear insists there’s no referee conspiracy against MLS teams. Instead, he says, it’s simply “poor officiating.” But that’s still an unavoidable and potentially damning part of the game that MLS teams all have to deal with if they hope to earn the win.
“[The Mexican players] will do some things to make your guys get a red card, so we’ve always talked about being responsible,” Warzycha said. “I mean, it’s difficult to play against those teams with 11 players, but can you imagine if you had to play with 10, at altitude? There’s no chance you can win. You just have to keep your head.”
“We went into the CONCACAF games saying, ‘We need to expect one bad call that could be consequential to the game, every single game,’” Kreis said. “You have to be ready for it, and move on as quickly as possible.”