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The Throw-In: For MLS sides, CCL glory not birthright

What just happened?

Wednesday’s results in CONCACAF Champions League play made for perhaps the most shocking night of football in recent Major League Soccer history. As the clock struck midnight, the only MLS team still standing was a Canadian one.

In all ways, it reinforced the notion that over 90 minutes, anything can happen. Still, it’s hard not to play the what-if game in the aftermath.

What if Santos Laguna goalkeeper Oswaldo Sánchez hadn’t made that brilliant double-save on Álvaro Fernández and Brad Evans just eight minutes in against Seattle? Would an early Sounders goal have completely changed the face of the game?

What if usually automatic Robbie Keane had buried the three good chances he had against Milos Kocic instead of doing his best Fernando Torres impression? Would we even be having this conversation?

What if Seattle still had Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle to pull off the bench in the later going in Torreón? Could they have provided the Sounders a spark instead of Sigi Schmid being forced to throw an underwhelming Eddie Johnson out there?

What if the Galaxy did what they were supposed to do – what they were engineered to do – and advanced to the semis, where Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle would have met fellow US internationals and former Galaxy man Herculez Gomez? Was that a matchup made in heaven between 2010 World Cup veterans?

What if Kasey Keller had delayed his retirement for a few more months to enjoy the Sounders’ run to the CCL knockout rounds? Would he have made  saves on shots that Michael Gspurning let into the Seattle net?

What if David Beckham had known the Galaxy weren’t going to make it out of the quarterfinals? Would he have re-signed with LA on a two-year deal? Or would he have taken the money and run to Paris?

They’re all valid and natural questions. But they also smack of a certain misconception: that CCL glory, that elusive Holy Grail, is somehow the destiny of MLS’ glory teams. That the sexy sides from this league somehow have a claim on the CONCACAF title by birthright.

Real Salt Lake came this close to the top of the mountain, and we’re clamoring for an MLS team to get back there. And we don’t just think it’ll happen, we deserve it.

That’s all nonsense. There’s no excusing the defensive breakdowns that plagued both Seattle and LA on Wednesday night. There’s no writing off the scoring chances for both teams that went unanswered by poor execution.

And most of all, that’s completely discounting the amazing job that Toronto FC have done in reaching this stage of the tournament. This is a team that was in utter disarray 12 months ago, yet slowly, bit by bit, has been putting the pieces together.

To ignore the accomplishment of Aron Winter’s squad is to be blind to how much of a difference Torsten Frings has made in giving the Reds bite and pedigree.

To turn a blind eye to Ryan Johnson’s amazing evolution from indoor-soccer castoff to key role player in a system that plays to his strengths is to totally miss the boat on the strengths of Winter’s 4-3-3.

To laugh off TFC’s 4-3 aggregate victory against LA as a “nine times out of 10, it doesn’t happen” phenomenon is to be ignorant to that other aforementioned footballing cliché: Over 90 minutes, anything can happen.

Danny Koevermans, Joao Plata, Luis Silva, Ashtone Morgan and the rest made the plays they needed to make, and Winter’s crew keeps growing and improving, it seems, game by game.

While we’re busy lamenting the death of the Galaxy and Sounders in the CCL and worrying about how badly, supposedly, TFC will be spanked at the hands of Santos Laguna, they’re celebrating in Canada. As well they should be.

Toronto’s victory on Wednesday night at The Home Depot Center is arguably the biggest in Canadian soccer since the national team defeated Honduras 27 years ago in Newfoundland to qualify the Canucks for their first – and thus far only – World Cup appearance.

How’s that for a little destiny?

Maybe Wednesday’s experience should remind MLS fans exactly how massive an accomplishment it was by Real Salt Lake last year even to reach the CCL finals. It’s about hard work, dedication, the little things and – to a man – a full 180-minute performance by every single player in uniform.

Just because RSL nearly did it doesn’t mean it’s open season on the regional title. It’s a grind. It’s a beast to be slain and, until MLS teams establish consistency in the tournament, it will remain the league’s white whale.

And that is exactly why, as most MLS fans did a year ago, we all need to put our full support behind Toronto FC. So they might have been a distant third choice of teams you wanted to see go deep into the tournament. Get over it. They’re who’s left standing. They deserve credit and they deserve your unwavering support.

For now, destiny speaks with a Canadian accent. Everyone’s welcome aboard.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.

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