A select group of Liga MX and MLS coaches grapple with the exact same problem about this time every year. The names change, but the quandary about striking the right balance remains the same. Each club strives to rest key players for league play without sacrificing the desired CONCACAF Champions League results.
Montreal Impact coach Marco Schällibaum created some latitude for this latest test by naming a first-choice starting XI for the opening group match against San Jose. A narrow 1-0 victory in that affair afforded Schällibaum the opportunity to leave most of his regulars in Quebec ahead of the important league clash against fellow Champions League combatant Houston on Saturday. He grasped the opening with both hands and fielded a starting XI against Guatemalan side CD Heredia filled with reserves.
Schällibaum received encouraging signs from the results on Tuesday night. Houston adopted a similar approach and escaped a surprisingly fraught trip to Trinidad with a 0-0 draw with the W Connection. Los Angeles relied on a blended lineup in a critical home match with Costa Rican side Cartaginés and threw Landon Donovan into the mix for the final half-hour to claim a 2-0 victory.
In an ideal world, Montréal would have mirrored those results and picked up the point or three required to keep advancement out of Group 5 on track. But Schällibaum likely understood that he opened his side up to the alternative by leaving Italian veterans Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta at home and provided an opportunity for Heredia to upset the emerging order.
The gamble – such as it is – failed to reap the desired result. Heredia contributed much more to the game than expected and received ample support from the refereeing crew. A soft penalty and a soft dismissal before halftime left the Impact – not exactly tearing up the field from the outset anyways – placed in a rather untenable position of trying to protect a 0-0 result during the second half. Charles Córdoba pounced two minutes from time to thwart the Impact's dogged efforts and turn the table into a mess.
Montreal learned the rather harsh lesson taught to Guadalajara and Tigres in the last edition of this competition: prepare for the potential consequences of fielding a shadow side. Entrants from Mexico and the United States generally fare well with a genuine mix of starters and reserves – plus the prospect of throwing one or two key men into the fray off the bench if the situation warrants – included in the starting XI.
The prospect of playing a weakened side does not necessarily yield the same results, though. It is both a condemnation of the squad depth in some respects (and the Mexican sides certainly possess more of it for financial reasons) and a credit to the capabilities of some of the other sides in the region.
Houston's narrow escape in Trinidad and Montreal's surprising defeat in Guatemala reinforced that concept without changing the priorities already in place. Montreal harbors significant Champions League aspirations, but the lineup fielded on Wednesday night suggests it is not prepared to ignore league matches to advance its continental causes. The age of the squad – even with the recent additions – requires lineup rotation here and there. And, sometimes, those alterations create unintended and unwanted effects.
Those calculations, however, come with the territory. Each MLS club copes with similar concerns as it embarks upon its Champions League journey and processes the inevitable fallout from those choices in its own way.