One year removed from the embarrassment of having two teams eliminated in the preliminary round, Major League Soccer saw a positive start to this year's CONCACAF Champions League. Though Toronto FC can't be too excited by their 1-0 win over Honduras's Motagua, a win's a win, the old truism holds, with this win marking a huge turnaround from last year.
Then, in the first match of their preliminary round tie, Toronto lost to the Puerto Rico Islanders 1-0 at BMO. A win over Motagua has to be a much greater achievement than a close loss to those lowly, second division Puerto Rico Islanders, right?
Most reading this will have picked up on the question's sarcasm, and after last night's performance at Home Depot Center, even labeling PRI "second division" carries a heavy amount of paradox.
At Major League Soccer-leading Los Angeles Galaxy, Puerto Rico posted a 4-1 victory. David Foley and Nicolas Addlery had PRI up 2-0 at halftime, with Josh Hansen's goal ten minutes after break affirming the Galaxy nightmare. Addlery added a fourth late, with an own goal giving Los Angeles their only consolation.
The Galaxy's Champions League is now on life support, needing to turn around the three goal margin next week at the Estadio Juán Rámon Loubriel. In the interim, Bruce Arena needs to determine what went wrong.
Los Angeles clearly did not bring a Champions League-level effort to last night's game, part of MLS clubs' continued underestimation of both Division II teams and the commitment needed to do well in this competition. How many Puerto Rico Islanders or Montreal Impacts need to make Champions League waves before Major League Soccer gives them their due respect?
But in addition, Puerto Rico was exceedingly efficient, converting almost every chance they creating, capitalizing on a series of poor performances at the back from a Galaxy team that's allowing just over half-a-goal per match in league this year.
If one or two of these factors were absent, Puerto Rico still wins, and we are still left wondering why Major League Soccer's best team lost to a club at the bottom of their Division II conference. But in last night's 4-1 result, there was an element of stars aligning. Whereas last year one of USL-1's best teams knocked-out a struggling MLS side, this year a middle-of-the-table USSF Division II team routed the MLS's gold standard.
I never knew gold was worth so little.
A team with Los Angeles's talent can't be written off for next week's return leg. Still, the Galaxy play Chicago on Sunday in league action while Puerto Rico have the weekend off. That weekend match could provide Los Angeles their excuse to re-focus on league play and become the latest, beguiling Champions League failure for MLS.
And On Toronto ...
Not to overlook Toronto, who got a first half goal from Chad Barrett to build a 1-0 lead for the return leg in Honduras, but their match now seems like last night's forgettable but good appetizer. "Yeah, that was good.
"Too bad dinner gave me food poisoning."
Still, TFC got the result they couldn't get last year, giving them reason for hope come next week.
Motagua still has to be considered the favorite. It had been three months since their last match, with the effects of the lay-off evident in their inability to craft a final ball. That rust combined with the travel made their 0-1 loss a relatively good result.
Seattle's Champions League Debut
Seattle Sounders FC hosts Metápan tonight at Qwest Field, and to the club's credit, they seem intent on bringing more intensity than was seen from Los Angeles last night.
As featured at Sounder at Heart:
Whether it was Steve Zakuani and Sigi Schmid openly comparing the CCL to Europe's much more famous version or Fredy Montero basically saying that he'd rather play in this game than the MLS All-Star Game against Manchester United, it's pretty clear the Sounders have received that message.
"This is our Champions League," Zakuani said. "We all grew up watching the European Champions League. It's the same magnitude, but it's our region. I think we're going to be focused on that game (as opposed to the All-Star Game)."
In it's short history in Major League Soccer, Seattle has brought a refreshing energy and perspective to the league, something that could help Major League Soccer solve Champions League struggles that continue to disappoint fans. Perhaps Seattle is too new to the league to know that you're supposed to hedge your bets in Champions League - give yourself an excuse, should the competition prove too much to battle. Perhaps Seattle will treat the competition like a confederation championship.
Are they really that naive? Let's hope so.