Is 2022 The Year MLS wins CCL?
Since its inception, CONCACAF Champions League has been a boogeyman to every single Major League Soccer team that has qualified for the tournament, every single year. No MLS team has ever won the region's highest prize--That honor has belonged exclusively to Liga MX.
There have been MLS teams who hit the final, who nearly scaled the mountain--LAFC may have been able to do it if fans were allowed into the stadium(Pandemic protocols prevented it)--Real Salt Lake was the first to take a punchers chance into the second leg.
The Montreal Impact(Now CF Montreal) were the ones who gave themselves the best shot in 2015--They had the lead in the second leg in front of a sold out Olympic Stadium and even led at halftime, 1-0, on a goal by Andres Romero, before collapsing in the second half and losing the match and the tie.
Fast forward a few years and now we look at the 2022 edition of CCL, a year where realistically, fans can ask the question of "Is this OUR year?" The answer is "It might well be." Personally, as a pundit, I'm skeptical of the way the league operates, and if I'm saying "It might be."....Then it REALLY might be.
New York City turned on the gas in the opening leg on Tuesday against Communicaciones of Guatemala, led by veteran midfielder Maxi Moralez, cruising to a 3-1 victory. Their retention of Moralez on a lesser financial hit to the salary cap provided an immeasurable bump to what NYCFC could be this year--Throw in the fact that they kept Valentin Castellanos and they've got the two most important attackers back in the fold.
Their backline is solid, led by Peruvian international Alexander Callens and Luxembourg veteran Maxime Chanot. The Cityzens should survive the second leg in Guatemala and advance to potentially face the second MLS team on their half of the knockout bracket...
The Seattle Sounders...On Tuesday night the Sounders dominated Leon in every aspect of the match and outclassed them at every position. They were rewarded for their relentlessness in the attack at home with two first half goals from Sounders fan favorite and legend, Fredy Montero. Manager Brian Schmetzer was reported on the TV broadcast as asking Montero to "Go as long as you can give us."
The Colombian responded by going 81 minutes and showing he has plenty of life in his legs at 34. He was dangerous and made great runs off the ball slotted in up top in place of Raul Ruidiaz. The Sounders also played the game sans their midfield maestro Nico Lodeiro and reserve striker and MLS veteran Will Bruin.
Jordan Morris added a third to all but ice the tie away and showed some flashes of brilliance with Schmetzer allowing him to make vertical runs up the center of the park. Christian Roldan had a breakaway denied, as did Morris, in stoppage time. It could have easily gone 5 or 6 to the good for the Green Guys.
If Seattle can even play half as well in the second leg, get another solid shift out of 16 year old Obed Vargas, a young Yank maturing rapidly in this tournament and add even one additional piece that was missing on Tuesday, they'll advance to face NYCFC in an all MLS semifinal, which opens the door for 2022 being "The Year"
That continued tonight as the New England Revolution and CF Montreal took their shot at Liga MX opponents. The teams have two very different rosters, two very different styles, but both possess enough pieces to find their way past the Mexican sides, who appear to be far less dangerous this year than in previous seasons.
For New England, it all starts with The Bruce. Manager Bruce Arena is one of the last "old school" Yank gaffers. An MLS original manager, a legend in the college ranks, a former national team coach. His playing philosophy brings a seldom seen, but often reminisced "tough guy" mentality. His roster is devoid of "shake and bake" and full of "punch your face" type of players.
New England's All-Yank backline is as solid as any in North America--Andrew Farrell, Da Juan Jones, Henry Kessler and Brandon Bye--All New England lifers who have now played together for several years and matured as a group.
Grizzled veterans provide cover with Omar Gonzalez and his national team experience and AJ DeLaGarza, an MLS lifer who has suited up for the national team of tiny Guam via family lineage, provide insurance policies for Bruce Arena and also an ability to "squad rotate" in back if need be.
For New England to advance past UNAM, the Revs needed the backline grouping to play nearly perfect, to not get caught up field, keeping their defensive shape and limit the shots that headed towards backup goalkeeper Earl Edwards, who stepped between the pipes in place of injured US National Team starter Matt Turner--Who heads to Arsenal in summer--So this was the dress rehearsal for the Revolution backline.
They did just that for 90 minutes tonight. They scrapped, they battled, they were unafraid to get stuck in, do the dirty work and hold the fort down.
In the middle of the park, US National Team winger Sebastian Lletget and Matt Polster, who recently returned from a shout abroad, lined up with Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou and Icelandic national teamer Arnor Traustason to manhandle the UNAM midfield from start to finish.
Up top, the best player on the pitch decided the match and potentially the tie. Polish national team striker Adam Buksa found the target twice in the final twenty minutes to give New England a commanding 3-0 victory, the "extra goal" they needed going to the second leg in Mexico.
It also helped that New England, like Seattle, had quality depth options to insert off the bench. Tommy McNamara, an MLS veteran--another "scrappy guy" that fits perfectly in the system that The Bruce wants to play, Emmanuel Boateng and former US National Team star Jozy Altidore provided the extra boost in the second half to give New England the breathing room necessary heading to leg two.
CF Montreal, who were on paper, the weakest of the remaining MLS teams in CCL, faced off with what was the strongest Liga MX side left, Cruz Azul. Montreal is in the midst of a total rebuild as a club and seemingly has been for a few years now. They sniffed about the playoffs over the years with the likes of Marco DiVaio, Didier Drogba, Ignacio Piatti, Marco Donadel, Patrice Bernier and other elite level players passing through, but have hit the reset button. They're looking to insert more Canadian, specifically, Quebecois, players into their first team.
Such a move usually comes with significant growing pains and they showed tonight. Montreal's backline was tested time and time again by the Mexican heavyweights and left back Zorhan Bassong had a howler of a night and an exceptionally poor first half. He took a yellow card that sees him suspended for the second leg at Stade Olympique next week and was also a culprit on the Cruz Azul opener.
Montreal's midfield, once powered by the previously mentioned Piatti, Donadel and Bernier, all players who were "a cut above", was devoid of creativity and lacked bite, with former Tottenham man Victor Wanyama the lone "fearless wolf" on the pitch. Djordje Mihailovic, a Yank with promise, shouldered the load going into the final third--but without a DiVaio or a Drogba to find, much of his effort was for naught. Finnish striker Lassi Lappalainen is still a baby as far as strikers go at 23, but he is in his fourth season in the Francophone city and he finds himself playing second fiddle to Hondruan Romell Quioto. With Quioto suspended from yellow card accumulation tonight, Lappalainen got the start and if a grade was to be given, a C would be generous.
All is not lost, however. Montreal, who did not register a single shot in the first leg, head back to Montreal down 1-0, which is not an impossible mountain to climb. They'll also get Quioto back up top, so it is within reach.
All in all, the opening leg of the semifinal round was a good night for Major League Soccer teams. They were dominant in their home performances and Montreal limited the damage on the road. 2022 may be the year.