Nobody said it was going to be easy. There's a reason no MLS team has ever won the Concacaf Champions League. The Houston Dynamo are a step closer after beating Guastatoya 2-1 Tuesday, but it also served as a taste of just how tough it can be in CCL play.
The MLS side took the aggregate series 3-1, a convincing margin, yet the game and series were much tighter than the scoreline showed.
"They did an incredible job," forward Mauro Manotas said of the Guatemalan club. "You have to recognize that and congratulate them for the great job they did in the two games. I think they deserved a bit more, but unfortunately for them we were at home with our fans who were asking for a win and thankfully we were able to give it to them."
The club will now prepare for its MLS opener, but its attention may be drawn to Tuesday's visit from Tigres.
The Liga MX club advanced to the quarter-finals Tuesday by smashing Saprissa 5-1 to earn a 5-2 aggregate victory. To say their team is more talented and with a much deeper squad than that of Guastatoya's is being kind to the Guatemalan champion.
For a moment, Tuesday's game could've been decided by penalty kicks. The visitors scored a decent goal in the 72nd minute with left-back Stefano Cincotta launching a ball over the top that was flicked on to Isaac Acuna. The Mexican played in Aaron Navarro who fired his effort past Joe Willis.
An understrength Dynamo team hadn't shown much danger to that point, and had it ended 1-1 the match would've been decided from 12 yards. But with star winger Alberth Elis in the match as a substitute, things changed.
The Honduran charged down the left side five minutes after the goal, pushing it around Cincotta to get free and then putting in a cross for fellow substitute Manotas. The Colombian converted and tilted the series back in the MLS side's favor.
"We gave them life, and they scored a very good goal. Then, important for us, we made some subs and the guys came in with very good energy, mentality and goals," Dynamo manager Wilmer Cabrera said. "They changed the game. In 15 minutes we changed the game in our favor. We could’ve scored two more goals."
The talent difference showed when Cabrera put on some of his top players, but those nervous moments experienced were a reminder of what can happen in this competition.
Simply moving on past a Central American opponent is more than other MLS teams can say, so perhaps criticism is a bit harsh. Toronto FC was thoroughly embarrassed by Panamanian side Club Atletico Independiente. The Dynamo kept control of its tie, winning the away leg and eventually pulling through in the second leg as well.
Things certainly won't get any easier for the Dynamo in CCL play with the Liga MX giants coming to town in a week. The Dynamo have a problem to solve; wanting to put in a dignified performance in its MLS opener this weekend against Real Salt Lake but having to play one of the best teams in the Americas just three days after that contest. They already dealt with an unusual evening in the competition, with the start of Tuesday's match delayed two-and-a-half hours because of lightning in the area.
Cabrera won't have the luxury of resting Elis or Manotas in the next leg. The Dynamo will need their best for all 180 minutes of the series to topple the Mexican side, not that the manager is expecting to need to do much motivating.
"That’s the game any player would like to play - and for our players, they’re excited about it," he said of the Tigres clash. "We’re going to respect the opponents, but we’re going to try to play the best game of our lives. Why? Because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play those guys here and then over there. We’re going to try to enjoy that. And enjoying is when you win.
"But the beauty of this game is that on the field everyone is equal. Guastatoya today, they were equal and they almost… they got it to 1-0 after 72 minutes. So you have to play the games, and we’re excited about the possibility to represent MLS against Tigres."