CONCACAF Champions League: MLS Clubs Get Over The Fear Factor

Humberto Suazo and CF Monterrey may have celebrated the last CCL title, but MLS clubs are rapidly closing the gap by playing with confidence in themselves. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

Mexican clubs are used to having their way with teams from MLS in the CONCACAF Champions League, but the tables may be turning

Mexican dominance has been an accepted part of the CONCACAF Champions League, just as it was in the Champions Cup of the past. If anything, allowing more Mexican clubs into the competition only underlined the gap between the region's richest (in terms of wealth and history) and everyone else. MLS clubs were right there with the strongest Central American clubs, doggedly trying to pick up whatever scraps could be found.

Numbers don't often give us the full picture in soccer, but this is one of those rare occasions. In the three editions of the CCL that came before this year's, Mexican sides had a staggering record of 45W-14D-13L in the group stage, with a +94 goal differential to go with it. No Mexican entrant has ever failed to get to the quarterfinals - with 9 group winners and 3 runners-up - and once in the knockout stages, Mexican clubs have not once been eliminated by a club from outside the Primera División. Put simply, the CCL was Mexico's playground.

In the 2011-2012 edition, however, there is evidence that Mexican dominion over the CCL might not be such a foregone conclusion. A quick look at the standings reveals an American club at the top of each group, while presumptive favorites like Pumas UNAM and Santos Laguna languish in the bottom halves of theirs. The Los Angeles Galaxy, FC Dallas, and the Seattle Sounders have all managed two straight wins to open the competition; the Colorado Rapids, meanwhile, were only three minutes and stoppage time from joining them before Julio "Palomo" Rodriguez scored an equalizer for Real Espana down in Honduras. Even Toronto FC, often mocked in MLS circles, sits in 2nd behind Dallas in Group B.

How did this happen? The easy thing to do would be to point to Dallas winning 1-0 over Pumas in Mexico City; Schellas Hyndman astutely compared the situation to Roger Bannister's four-minute mile, predicting that others would soon follow. Hyndman was right on one count; just a few days later, Seattle won at Monterrey despite starting the game having rested the entire spine of their team (Osvaldo Alonso, Kasey Keller, Fredy Montero, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, and Erik Friberg). It was like being in Bizarro World; the CCL routine is for Mexican clubs to sent reserves north of the Rio Grande and come home with results, not the other way around.

It's not just the MLS clubs, either. CD Olimpia were one goal away from sending their qualifying round tie with Santos into extra time (and, as Olimpia hosted the second leg, one would have fancied their chances to go on and pull the upset). Santos then had a torrid time on Matchday 1 with another Honduran team (Real Espana) before losing 2-0 at El Salvador's Isidro Metapan. Elsewhere, Monarcas Morelia kicked off their tournament by losing 1-0 at LD Alajuelense, and Pumas followed up their loss to Dallas with a 0-0 draw in Panama against a Tauro FC side that had goalkeeper Adnihell Ariano sent off in the 27th minute.

Dallas may well have been the team to burst through the dam, but it was certainly softened up last year. Real Salt Lake's bold charge to the final is a fine starting point; Jason Kreis and co. showed both their fellow MLS teams and the clubs from around CONCACAF that playing with fear against Mexican clubs was a recipe for disaster. Even their group stage loss at Cruz Azul helped; RSL may have been on the wrong end of that 5-4 classic, but they scared the living hell out of a Cruz Azul side that in CCLs past bordered on cocky.

The credit doesn't go entirely to RSL, however. Toronto FC also managed a home win over Cruz Azul, while the Columbus Crew beat Santos 1-0 at Crew Stadium before losing a tight 1-0 decision in Torreón. In Group D, meanwhile, Deportivo Toluca lost away matches against Olimpia and the Puerto Rico Islanders, while also drawing 0-0 at CD F.A.S. (by comparison, Olimpia won their away fixture against the same side 4-1). While a quirky knockout round draw kept the Mexican clubs all on one side of the bracket, one would not have been entirely shocked to see RSL, Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica, or even Columbus able to knock a Mexican team out if they'd have had a chance.

One factor helping teams from MLS and elsewhere is simple confidence. For MLS teams, tournaments like the Superliga showed people across the league that even second-tier MLS sides could compete with their Mexican counterparts. Not only that, but there is a somewhat odd phenomenon happening throughout MLS that sees fans and teams openly hoping for their everyday opponents putting one over on the bigger teams from down south. It's like we're all in this together in a strange way. When an MLS team takes the field against a Mexican club, they are more and more likely to be playing for the pride of the entire league rather than just for themselves.

The Central American path is somewhat different. For the most part, the same two or three teams dominate the leagues throughout Central America, so they keep finding themselves in the CCL. That familiarity can be seen in the disparity of results between relative newcomers like CS Herediano and CD Motagua, who have combined for 4 losses, 0 goals for, and 13 goals against thus far. Meanwhile, teams like Olimpia, Real Espana, and Isidro Metapan appear to have shed the fear that Central American teams would play with when facing Mexican clubs.

Familiarity and confidence are not just helping MLS and others; they're also serving to hurt the Mexican sides, who appear to have convinced themselves that they are as superior as they used to be in this tournament. That results in things like Pumas choosing to only select youth team players and reserves, while Morelia and Santos have both also chosen B teams for games they thought would be easy.

Even Monterrey, when playing their starters against the Sounders, appeared confused when Seattle didn't just roll over and die from the opening kickoff. The expected mistakes caused by fear or nerves never came, and Seattle didn't sit so far back as to be unable to muster an attack. The frustrated, rushed nature of Monterrey's attacks as the game wore on told the story. The script said this one was supposed to be easy, and it wasn't playing out that way.

Psychology doesn't explain everything here. It is also vitally important that the four American MLS clubs are doing well in league play and sit comfortably amongst the playoff teams. There won't be any instances of a coach essentially abandoning the CCL in order to save his players for a shot at a playoff spot.

Another big factor has been the more nuanced rotation policies of this crop of MLS coaches. LA, Seattle, and Dallas have done a particularly good job of spreading minutes throughout their squad over the whole season, so that guys like Adam Cristman, Zach Scott, and Bruno Guarda can be counted on in any competition and playing alongside any of their teammates, rather than the A team/B team rotations popular with MLS coaches in the past.

In the end, however, that might also take its root in psychology. If the coaches didn't have the belief in those players, then surely you wouldn't see Guarda playing with Dallas nursing a 1-0 qualifying round lead over Alianza FC or Scott logging 90 minutes at center back against Humberto Suazo and Monterrey. The fact is that MLS sides have, from top to bottom, stopped beating themselves before taking the field for CCL matches, and to this point in the competition they've reaped the rewards.

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