Friday, August 19, 2011

The Fall of Fortress Mexico (And Other MLS Adventures)

This entry will begin my weekly Thursday night MLS wrap-up of CONCACAF Champions League action. Each week I'll look back on what piqued the national interest in CCL play through the midweek. And boy do we have a doozy to open up with.

It was not that long ago, maybe more a matter of months than years, that MLS was still considered a relative nuisance in CONCACAF rather than a power player. Case in point: the 2010-11 CCL season. Aside from RSL, which did more to advance the cause of MLS than anybody in CCL history, there were warning signs that this might take a while. The Crew losing 2-1 to Guatemalan side Municipal. The Sounders losing to Saprissa home and away. TFC getting bounced 1-0 by Panamanian side Arabe Unido. If the expectation of MLS was to one day be the best of CONCACAF, or at the very least stand toe to toe with Mexico for the honor, this was not the appropriate confirmation.

And then this week happened. We are certainly entering a new year. We might also be entering a new era.

And ladies and gents, boys and girls, the history maker:

I'm not a whiplash guy. I don't react hotly one way or another to snap results. And after all, this is only the first week of group matches. But boy'o'boy'o'boy. Hard not to feel a nice well of pride for the MLS fan in all of us today. Five matches. Five wins. Yes, even improving TFC won. But what does it all mean, man?

Of course we have to focus today on Mexico City, where the Hoops bagged arguably the most important international win in MLS history. Rightly or not, MLS will be linked in some small way to Mexico's top flight for the foreseeable future, perhaps forever. Proximity, rivalry and resources mean each league will occasionally peak over the border to see how the other is progressing. FCD's win on Mexican soil, the first such victory in league history, will continue working the till of popular opinion RSL so generously left behind last season.

My Spanish is so so, but even I caught the stream of excuses gushing from Pumas (that's first-place Pumas, by the by) and the Mexico City sporting press this week. Pumas coach Guillermo Vazquez pointed to suspensions, injuries and rested players in an effort to escape blame. The press pointed to a relatively unimportant fixture amidst the Apertura season (and just the first group game, dont'cha know). FCD rightly shrugged its shoulders and patted itself on the back. I'll point to Pumas' missed opportunities more than anything. When George John and Ugo Ihemelu parted ways in the middle in the third minute to open up a golden scoring chance, Kevin Hartman did what he always does and made a point-blank reaction save to keep the game scoreless. After settling into the atmosphere of the night, FCD was remarkably poised the rest of the way, and when Marvin Chavez did this, all of MLS did a little fist pump just to be done with all this hex nonsense.

One main takeaway from the week: MLS can exhale a little bit today. The specter of Mexico has been hanging over the league's head for years now. This big looming giant off in the southerly sky always seemed to be looking down on MLS' progress with a condescending eye, but no more do I think that can be the case. I didn't think it was necessarily the case before the game, but opening up a number of Mexico fans to the fact that their northern neighbors have a league that will challenge year in and year out for CONCACAF trophies was a worthy and necessary aim. If RSL laid the groundwork last year, Dallas continued construction on Wednesday.

Just as important, though, is taking care of the minnows. TFC invaded Panama and got a result. The Rapids came from behind twice, while LA and Seattle both put in dominant performances (Seattle with 10 men, no less). The fact that MLS even got five teams into the tournament was impressive enough. Five opening week W's? We'll take it.

- Will Parchman


TrueCrew said...

While I share your view that it was a VERY good week for MLS in CCL, I think the piece is slanted rather dramatically to come to the conclusion that this was watershed when it wasn't, and like many pieces thses days, gives too much credit to RSL (who beat a rebuilding early season Crew and Saprissa to get to the final).

First off, Columbus, TFC, and indeed RSL all beat Mexican sides at home last year. And TFC got a point on the road.

Second, RSL wasn't a watershed. As I said. They beat a team that had just rebuilt it's roster (Columbus) and Saprissa (whom MLS teams like Columbus had beaten away in previous additions, and finished ahead of in group), before losing to a Mexican foe in the final.

Fact is, DC ('98) and LA ('00-'01) had won this competition before RSL even existed. LA has had a runner up finish ('97) as well.
Plenty of MLS teams went deep: DC 3rd in '97, Chcago and DC to SF in '99, DC to the semi's in 2000-01; KC to the SF's in 2002, Chicago in 2004 SFs, DC in SF's in 2005, Houston in 2007 SFs, DC and Houston in 2008 SFs.

And while victories over Mexican sides were certainly rare, they did happen. In one offs: LA beat Santos Laguna 4-1 in LA in 1997; DC beat Toluca 1-0 to win it, and Leon 2-0 in DC on the way to the title.

And KC still stands as the only MLS team to beat a Mexican side in a 2-legged tie, with their win over Santos Laguna 4-3 on agg in 2002.

RSL feat of narrowly losing out is one that has happened multiple times before. LA lost to Nexaca on PKs in QF in 1999 (@LA). Colorado narrowly went out (4-3 agg) to Leon in 1998. And Houston in 2007 would have advanced if away goals had been in effect in 2007, but ended up losing 5-4 AGG to Pachuca (2-0 H, 2-5 A (aet)).

Many MLS reams have come close against Mexican teams before. KC still stands as the only one to win a 2 legged tie. And DC and LA have won the thing.

Yes, congrats to RSL last year and FCD with the win this year, but until we start beating full strength Mexican teams in the knockout rounds (or eliminating them from group) we haven't really proven our mettle.

So yes, some progress to be sure, but hardly a watershed, and, IMHO, some discredit to the teams that went before (DC, LA, KC, and Houston) not to mention Chicago, Colorado, and Columbus.

jon said...

TrueCrew, you call Will out for what you perceive to be a slanted piece and then throw up the most ridiculously slanted facts going the other way. Prior to the 08-09 version of CCL, the competition was a joke. Just for example, the 2007 and 2008 SF appearances by DC and Houston only required them to win one 2-legged series against non-mexican teams (since the competition started at the QF stage) The RSL performance was significant because they had to navigate a grueling group stage mid-season and then play the knockout rounds (ask Bob Bradley how easy it is to get a result in Saprissa).
And as for beating Mexican foes in the US, sure it's great that MLS and the USMNT had managed it many times already, but doing it down there was a mental block more than anything and so I would agree that it was a watershed moment. Every piece I've read on the Dallas win has included the caveat that Pumas fielded a weak side, but that doesn't mean the monkey isn't off MLS' back. And the fact that other MLS teams had fallen just short of this feat is what makes it all the more groundbreaking rather than just some one-off fluke. Methinks you are a tad too defensive.

Alex said...

I agree with Will on this piece. As jon stated the concacaf champions cup was a joke compared to champions league and RSL deserves mention for their feat of navigating a much more difficult tournament than DC or LA ever had to deal with. And what was so great about what FCD did, TrueCrew, was they beat a mexican team IN mexico, we're all aware that MLS teams have beaten mexico teams in the US. This weekend truly was watershed because not only did FCD beat pumas in mexico city, but EVERY MLS team won their game and even TFC won in central america. big week, respeck.

Will Parchman said...

Agreed about the CCL's previous incarnation. It was such a joke before its reorganization that I barely give credence to those results. Qualifiers had to win a whopping three games to win the entire thing, and in their title-winning years, LA and DC both hosted the entire final tournament. All told, RSL had to play 12 CCL games last year in addition to MLS and cup duties. That's three times the previous total. There is not an accomplishment in MLS history that even comes close to comparing.

As for FCD, we might be at an impasse. From a mental perspective, the enormity of the accomplishment will echo down the league for years. It bears mentioning that 16 years have gone by without an MLS team winning a single game in Mexico in plenty of tries. If nothing else, the topic will never be broached again. Which greatly benefits MLS.

Matt said...

What's different as well is the MLS teams approach to this: Arena, in my opinion seriously, said that their CCL opener was their biggest game of the year. So I do think that MLS teams now view CCL games as a referendum on the evolution and quality of the league.

And, through that lens, I don't think going 5 for 5 can be overstated. Same for winning in Mexico City in a competitive game.

The Soccer Windbag said...

It's nice that FC Dallas won in Mexico, but it's true that it was against the UNAM reserves/youth team. It's not an's reality. Check that Pumas lineup versus the lineup that played the following weekend for the league. Still, irrespective of the fact that it was done against the reserve/youth team, it's still a win in Mexico. In the past the reserve team would've beaten the MLS team, so it's some progress (just not as momentous as the article makes it appear).

Will Parchman said...

Windbag, Mexico (and Mexico City in particular) has always been the great equalizer. This isn't the first time an MLS team has played a Mexican reserve side away, but it is the first win. There is no small bit of psychology at play there. I balk at calling this a momentous occasion, but it does have its place in history.

Jason Wintz said...

I should also point out (and I'm saying this as a then LA fan) that LA's appearance in the 2000 CCC final came without playing a Mexican team, and without wins. Both the quarterfinal and semifinal game for LA ended even, with LA advancing on penalties.

Yes, Pumas fielded a youth lineup. That was their choice, no one required them to adopt a handicap. When MLS teams did the same sort of thing in the past and then crashed out of the tournament did people shrug and give excuses, or did we bemoan MLS's poor performance. No one is claiming that MLS is the equal of the Mexican League, just the simple fact that, for the first time ever, an American team has beaten a Mexican team in Mexico.

And years down the line, no one will care who was on the field, only the badges on their jerseys.