MLS' first foray into the tweaked CONCACAF Champions League did not unfold as planned.
Real Salt Lake fell to a 1-0 defeat at C.S. Herediano on Tuesday night in a match that offered a neat summation of the trials and tribulations that await all five MLS sides as group play starts this week.
The typically hostile atmosphere in Central America (four words and a punctuation mark: ardent fans, bad field) didn't appear on the night, but the other usual hindrances found their way to influence the game and send RSL crashing to an unexpected defeat.
RSL, like many MLS sides, struggled to come to grips with a technical opponent in the early stages and watched the home side take advantage of early missteps with Elias Aguilar's opener after 14 minutes. After a marked improvement toward the end of the first half and the start of the second half, the match turned due to mostly uncontrollable circumstances.
The visitors collected a host of bookings (particularly painful with the new rule that will see players suspended after picking up two yellow cards, though there are various amnesty points during the knockout stages), procured a suspect red card (Nat Borchers departed the scene after a tackle at midfield, but replays rendered the decision quite harsh) and suffered a potentially critical injury (Jamison Olave limped off with an apparent hamstring knock with a half-hour to play) to transform the match into an exercise in damage limitation.
All of those hurdles ultimately yielded to a fairly mundane final period as Herediano expressed a willingness to settle for the narrow victory and RSL held out with its altered back four to rescue a decent result on yet another odd night in continental play.
“Actually, I'm OK with this,” RSL coach Jason Kreis told ESPN 700 after the match. “To suffer a really harsh decision with the red card in the 56th or 57th minute, whenever it was, and to play a man down for 30-plus minutes, you have to feel OK with walking out of there down a goal in basically what is going to turn into a home-and-away if we can manage to take care of our business against [Panamanian side] Tauro, which we will hope to.”
Kreis will hope to see his side run the table in its three remaining group matches to secure an advantageous spot in the quarterfinals. Only the top finisher from each three-team group progresses to the knockout round. The eight group winners are then promptly seeded according to their group stage records to reward teams that succeed during round-robin play.
Those particular concerns remain far off in the distance as clubs attempt to seal their passage first and worry about seeding later. With the immediate task in mind, the Musings takes a brief look at the landscape in all eight groups.
Santos Laguna (Mexico), Toronto FC (Canada), C.D. Águila (El Salvador)
Overview: Santos looks like a heavy favorite to progress here after dispatching TFC in the semifinals of the 2011-12 tournament. TFC's dedication to the competition remains in doubt given its league position, but the Reds should fare better than the first-timer from El Salvador with even a passing interest in the proceedings given the problems they can cause with their direct style of play.
Predicted winner: Santos Laguna
C.S. Herediano (Costa Rica), Real Salt Lake (United States), Tauro FC (Panama)
Overview: The defeat in Costa Rica makes RSL's task more difficult, but it isn't improbable to expect a victory by two or more goals at Rio Tinto Stadium. Tauro further complicates matters with its mix of Champions League experience (four appearances), its pair of Panamanian internationals up front in Edwin Aguilar and Luis Renteria and its unbeaten start to the domestic campaign (two wins from two, including a 3-0 win over fellow Champions League participant Chorrillo F.C. over the weekend).
Predicted winner: Real Salt Lake
Olimpia (Honduras), Houston (United States), FAS (El Salvador)
Overview: It looks like a straight tussle between Boniek Garcia's current and former clubs for a spot in the knockout stage. Former D.C. United striker Luciano Emilio will lead the Honduran efforts from the front with aid from several seasoned internationals, but Boniek Garcia will certainly be missed. Not even the continued presence of veteran Argentine striker Alejandro Bentos will help FAS' chances to advance from this group.
Predicted winner: Houston
Seattle (United States), Marathón (Honduras), Caledonia AIA (Trinidad and Tobago)
Overview: Caledonia won three out of five (five!) domestic championships in Trinidad this year, but the top spot here will go to either Marathón or Seattle instead of the unknown Trinidadians. Bet on Sigi Schmid's side to learn from last season's mistakes and secure a berth in the quarterfinals.
Predicted winner: Seattle
Los Angeles (United States), Isidro Metapán (El Salvador), Puerto Rico Islanders (Puerto Rico)
Overview: Bruce Arena probably would have preferred a more straightforward group, though the Galaxy will expect to progress without too many concerns. The advancing age of several key figures and the departure of canny manager Colin Clarke to Carolina over the winter diminishes the threat posed by the Islanders, but Metapán advanced to the quarterfinals in the last edition of the tournament and strengthened wisely by acquiring former D.C. United midfielder Eliseo Quintanilla and prolific Panamanian striker Nicolás Muñoz.
Predicted winner: Los Angeles
UANL Tigres (Mexico), L.D. Alajuelense (Costa Rica), Real Esteli (Nicaragua)
Overview: Tigres won't encounter many hurdles in its first foray into Champions League play. Alajuelense represents the more formidable of the two foes, but the Costa Ricans – like their domestic competition – aren't as strong as in years past. The return of striker Jean Carlos Solórzano from a poor loan spell at Melbourne Victory bolstered the squad considerably, but he could miss the critical home fixture against Tigres on Aug. 22 as he recovers from recent surgery on his right knee.
Predicted winner: UANL Tigres
Chorrillo (Panama), Monterrey (Mexico), Municipal (Guatemala)
Overview: Monterrey's 5-0 demolition of Chorrillo on Tuesday night just about summed up the state of this group. The two-time defending champion will have no problems finding its way to the quarterfinals.
Predicted winner: Monterrey
Xelajú (Guatemala), CD Guadalajara (Mexico), W Connection (Trinidad and Tobago)
Overview: In a stronger group, Chivas might have encountered some trouble given its dire domestic form. This modest assembly, however, shouldn't offer too many issues even for a side still trying to find its footing.
Predicted winner: Chivas
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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