Major League Soccer fans were finally given reason to exalt their clubs' Champions League performance, with both Seattle and Toronto getting Tuesday results in Central America to advance to the competition's group stage. Road draws by each club built upon 1-0, first leg wins, eliminated Isidro Metapán and Motagua, and gave MLS its third and fourth representatives in the tournament's next round. Coming one year after Major League Soccer lost two of three teams in this preliminary round (with no teams advancing out of prelims the previous year), the night was one of redemption for the league.
While last week's CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) results disappointed MLS fans - with league-leading Los Angeles Galaxy's 4-1 loss to USSF Division II's Puerto Rico shocking supporters - Seattle and Toronto's uninspiring 1-0 wins added to the concern, with league devotees facing the prospect of a third consecutive year of befuddling eliminations prior to group stage. It was an unanticipated shift of mood from the beginning last week, when hopes were high that the Galaxy's in-league quality along with Seattle's professed regard for the competition could right MLS's Champions League misfortunes. However, after last week's results, those hopes were diminished, with fans holding guarded optimism coming into Tuesday's matches.
Toronto started the night early and poorly in Honduras. Former TFC midfielder Amado Guevara scored after six minutes, heading home Motagua's first goal of the tie to even the aggregate score at one. The goal, foreshadowing how dangerous Motagua would be throughout the match, shook off the rust with which the Hondurans chased last week's match. Through the rest of the first half, the home team looked poised to send Toronto out at the preliminary round for the second year in a row.
Despite Motagua's strength, Toronto was able to put the tie away early in the second half. Substitute Maicon Santos set-up Dwayne De Rosario for a 59th minute goal, a low drive past Donaldo Morales, giving Toronto a 2-1 lead in the tie. More decisively, the tally gave TFC an important away goal, meaning Motagua would have to score twice to eliminate the Reds. Extra time was no longer a possibility, with Toronto holding the tie-breaker.
While Guevara answered quickly (two minutes later) with a goal from just outside the box, Toronto would get a late tally from Chad Barrett, his second of the tie, to send TFC into the next round, winning on aggregate 3-2. Through to Group A, Toronto is grouped with Real Salt Lake, Panama's Árabe Unido, and Cruz Azul, the Mexican club advancing to group play after a 6-0 (9-2) win Tuesday over Panamanian club San Francisco.
In the night's next match, Seattle underwent a similar trial in El Salvador, giving up an early goal to Isidro Metapán. On a terrible pitch made worse by heavy rain, Anel Canales scored for the Salvadorans in the 34th minute, heading home a Paolo Suárez cross to even the tie at one. Even before the Metapán goal reversed the first leg's score, the hosts had changed the tie's entire tone, with the team that was outshot 15-2 in Seattle controlling the second leg from the onset.
Like Toronto, Seattle would need some magic from the bench to find their crucial away goal. While the Reds saw Maicon Santos set-up the decisive goal, Seattle substitute Álvaro Fernández, playing his second match since being added to the active roster last Friday, did the work himself, scoring his first goal in emerald green. It was ten minutes after being brought on in the 64th minute that the Uruguayan midfielder headed a James Riley cross to José Luis González's far post, leaving Metapán two goals away from group stage.
Seattle's 1-1 draw gave them a 2-1 aggregate win, putting them into Group C where they join Mexico's Monterrey, Costa Rica's Saprissa, and the winner of tomorrow's match between Marathón (Honduras) and Tauro (Panama). Marathón, winner of Honduras's Apertura, carries a 3-0 lead from Panama into Wednesday's match in San Pedro Sula.
Also tomorrow: Los Angeles's trip to Bayamón to take on the Puerto Rico Islanders, the second leg of a tie which, starting last Tuesday, had signalled a troubling start to MLS's 2010-11 Champions League. After Tuesday night's results, Major League Soccer fans need no longer dwell on Galaxy's 4-1, Tuesday loss. Having had more than a week to come to grips with the result, MLS followers have already written Los Angeles off, and instead of worry about tomorrow's result, fans can bask in four group stage qualifiers, the most the league's ever placed into the tournament proper.