Welcome back to the Thursday Q&A series, where we focus on one particular topic – today's being the CONCACAF Champions League hump – and ask you to react, share, and discuss in the comments section. However, feel free to ask about anything game-related (MLS, USL, NASL, USMNT, CanMNT, etc.) over the next several hours.
So this latest edition of the CONCACAF Champions League is done, and we all now have three-and-a-half months to watch the tapes and figure out where it went wrong. Again.
D.C. United can point to their Bill Hamid-less meltdown in Costa Rica; the Portland Timbers and Sporting KC, two teams that had boasted lock-down defenses in 2013 (when they qualified for the 2014/15 version of the CCL) know that it was the inability to replicate that form that knocked them out last autumn, when both teams conceded sloppy home goals against Central American clubs. And the Red Bulls simply lacked the depth to compete on two fronts last September, with Mike Petke justifiably deciding to go all-in on MLS play and trotting out the reserves in CCL action.
Depth. That's the word, and that's the issue.
We saw ad hoc Montreal right back Nigel Reo-Coker get torn up in the second half of Club America's 4-2 win last night, and we saw the Impact jump through a bunch of hoops to get a 'keeper they trusted on the roster following Evan Bush's suspension. We saw Andres Romero score a great goal, then fade badly playing a position that would have been Justin Mapp's had Mapp been healthy. We saw Club America eventually figure out the weak points and prosper.
"For me, the 'Oh ****!' moment was always coming," said MLSsoccer.com's own Andrew Wiebe, who traveled to both Mexico City and Montreal over the last two weeks. "Montreal expended all their energy (physical and mental) in the first half. You could feel how drained they were before Benedetto got the goal, which is crazy because they were the ones who were supposed to be rested."
This is in-game, big-game knowhow. Take it from a guy who knows a bunch about the Champions League:
1/2) No disrespect whatsoever, but I saw this first hand with Seattle & TFC. Once they’re down it was more a “deer in the headlights” look.— herculez gomez (@herculezg) April 30, 2015
Progress is often frustrating and almost always non-linear. last night felt like more of the same, though not everyone saw it that way.
“MLS has to continue on the same path. I think MLS has done progressive work, intelligent and serious and above all, not acquiring players any more who are retiring in other countries," said Club America coach Gustavo Matosas. "It's bringing in young players who are good projects in their countries and this is why, sooner or later, MLS will win the CONCACAF Champions League. They're working very well and Montreal showed it today.”
Reo-Coker had a similar take, phrased in a different way.
”Obviously MLS is in its infancy still," said the veteran Englishman, who's played in the English Premier League and in the English youth national team set-up. "It’s a growing league. [LigaMX] has been going on for many, many years. It’s not just a sport to them, it’s a way of life. We’re still here trying to make that transition from people to understand it’s not just football, it’s a way of life. With that comes the quality.”
I keep beating this same drum, so I'll take a moment to do so again right here: The above sentiment is why academy and reserve teams are so important. Our best players need indoctrination in not only the right techniques and tactics, but also an understanding of the worldwide culture of the game. LigaMX teams murder MLS teams in this competition when given an inch. The few times the shoe has been on the other foot, MLS teams have left the door open and suffered as a result.
In any given one-off tournament, it could be a high-priced import who temporarily changes that truth. But the goal isn't to just win once; it's to dominate forever. For MLS to get to that stage, it'll be the academy system driving change, not overseas shopping sprees.
We already know the five MLS teams lined up for 2015/16: LA Galaxy qualified by winning the MLS Cup; the Seattle Sounders won last year's Supporters' Shield and US Open Cup; D.C. United took the regular-season Eastern Conference crown; RSL qualified by virtue of finishing fourth in the points column, thus claiming Seattle's spare berth; and Vancouver won Canada's spot by collecting more regular-season points in MLS than either Toronto or Montreal.
The through-line for these teams are strong academies that have produced the likes of Hamid, and Gyasi Zardes, and DeAndre Yedlin, and Donny Toia (I bet RSL would love to have that roster decision back) and Russell Teibert. And four of the five teams are now running their own reserve teams in USL.
They have all invested in locally-sourced, organic depth. Over the next several months, they'll have to develop that depth. And come August, when the CCL heats up again, they'll have to trust it.
Thanks for helping me kill a lovely Thursday afternoon. Check the comments section below for the back-and-forth!