With three CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal, here are the three paths to MLS victory heading into Leg 1:
New York Red Bulls vs. Club Tijuana
Tuesday, March 6 | 10 pm ET
UDN, UnivisionDeportes.com; go90.com
The New York Red Bulls open their quarterfinal matchup with Xolos in Tijuana, where they'll need to take advantage of their naiveté. One of the issues MLS clubs typically face against Mexican clubs is simply that they lack confidence. We’ve built a narrative about how hard it is to play against Mexican teams, especially in Mexico. It weighs on MLS clubs.
Fans like to think that players enter every game the same – confident, motivated, and prepared – but they don’t. Players feel different every time they walk through the tunnel. Just like fans sometimes worry as a game starts, so can players carry those same fears.
Fortunately for the Red Bulls, they might not be old enough to even understand the stories we’ve been telling for years. Aaron Long, Tim Parker, Tommy Redding, Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, Kaku, Alex Muyl – these guys haven’t been around long enough to understand what they might be up against. And it’s good. They will just go and play and enjoy the moment. They don’t have the preconceptions holding them back.
Sometimes you want players to understand what’s at stake. Sometimes you don’t. The more head coach Jesse Marsch can empower his players to soak up the joys of youth, the better.
UPDATE: The Red Bulls became the first MLS team to win a match in Mexico by multiple goals, defeating Club Tijuana 2-0 in the first leg.
Toronto FC vs. Tigres UANL
Wednesday, March 7 | 8 pm ET
UDN, UnivisionDeportes.com; TSN2, TSN GO; go90.com
For Toronto FC to emerge from a tough matchup with the tournament's back-to-back runner-up, captain Michael Bradley needs to be at his best in defensive transitions, which will prove crucial against Tigres. Tigres can destroy teams on the break, even though Enner Valencia, André-Pierre Gignac and the rest of the Tigres attack aren’t just about pace – their movement off the ball and with the ball is unpredictable and efficient.
If Toronto hope to win, they need to ensure Tigres doesn’t strike on the counter. As Toronto’s defensive midfielder, Bradley shoulders a huge amount of responsibility in stopping the opponent’s transitions. He will need to execute a three-fold plan:
First, Bradley must organize his team so they are prepared before Tigres wins the ball. Bradley will need to be vigilant and thinking about the defensive transition even when Toronto is in possession. It will mean telling his outside backs to hold their runs and not overlap as often, and asking his other center mids to restrict their forward runs to support the forwards. As an auxiliary, this also means Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco will have more responsibility in the attack, but you’d rather bank on Seba making a brilliant play than Tigres fumbling their counters.
Second, Bradley will need to read the channels Tigres wants to attack and either block the lanes or funnel them to less dangerous zones. The TFC captain isn’t the most athletic player, but he’s fantastic at reading the passing lanes behind him. He understands where the opponent wants to go and how to position himself to stop it. Bradley will need to bring that knowledge to bear in reading Tigres' intentions if Toronto is to stymie the attack.
Finally, Bradley will need to make smart, subtle fouls. It might well prove impossible to stop Tigres every time, so Bradley will need to pick his spots for tactical fouls … while ensuring they aren’t blatantly tactical. Bradley picked up a bad yellow at the end of the Colorado series, so he’s one booking away from a suspension; as much as he needs to stop counters, Bradley also needs to be on the field for the second leg. Real Salt Lake legend Kyle Beckerman has set the standard for the intentional/accidental foul – sometimes acting like his legs get accidentally tangled with the opponent’s – and Bradley could use some of that tactical trickery.
If Bradley locks down the Tigres transitions, Toronto should be able to surprise Liga MX's CCL favorite.
Seattle Sounders FC vs. C.D. Guadalajara
Wednesday, March 7 | 10 pm ET
UDN, UnivisionDeportes.com; go90.com
Simply put, the Seattle Sounders need to put an extra emphasis – that is, planning to win outright – in the opening leg at CenturyLink Field so Chivas are forced to return to Guadalajara with all of the pressure. There aren’t any special tactical adjustments; just put urgency into winning on Wednesday. It’s more about the mental preparation than anything tactical. Just like the Red Bulls recipe, it’s not super complicated, but it doesn’t need to be.
Brian Schmetzer needs to set the Sounders up to win in Seattle, and the players need to truly feel the urgency of the game. They can’t think they will win the tie in Mexico; it has to be won in Seattle. Don’t be reckless, but take your chances; press when you can, make runs into the box when you can; and make sure your brain understands that you can’t waste a single chance in front of goal.
Bringing that pressure to bear on Chivas with a result in the first leg will put the put the stress on them, and Chivas is a team close to breaking.
CD Guadalajara is a talented team, but one that seems to lack cohesion. They currently sit 16th in Liga MX, a striking position for such a big club. With its Clausura season essentially over, Chivas needs CCL success to salvage their season.
Just at MLS teams often lack the faith (or, dare I say it, the pressure) to win against Mexican clubs, their Liga MX counterparts often deal with consistent pressure to win against MLS teams. Seattle needs to flip the script. Push an already-fragile Chivas team to crumble in the second leg, when – if they're trailing – Chivas will start to lose their shape and throw numbers forward. An already suspect defense would be exposed even more. If Seattle plays it conservative in the first leg, they will miss a huge chance to exploit a mental advantage.