Quit while you are ahead.  What if you never get ahead?  That's a question that MLS teams are asking themselves when considering trips South of the border to Mexico.  Continuing his look at the CONCACAF Champions League, Alistair Cubbon notes an 'oh so close' for the US.

After 43 losses and 3 draws professional football teams from the US might be forgiven for thinking there is something more than just bad luck going against them when they play in Mexico.  Neither the US men’s national side or any MLS team (even the Canadian ones) have yet managed to even scrape a win when they head south of the border.  However this week two sides came probably as close as they have ever done to getting a “1” in the win column (although as Grant Wahl points out an amateur team, New York Hungaria, did win 3-2 in Mexico in 1963).

If you are a fan of goals, bad defending, sodden pitches and conspiracy theories then Real Salt Lake’s visit to Cruz Azul was a game for you.  Salt Lake were 1-3 up with 15 minutes to go on Wednesday night in Mexico City.  They had battled against torrential rain and poor refereeing and were just starting to believe they could be the first to take home 3 points from Mexico.  In the first half they had a Will Johnson goal incorrectly disallowed for offside, then Cruz Azul striker Javier Orozco was allowed to score his first of four goals following a free kick that was not taken from the correct place and while the ball was moving.  The downpour in the first half had left the pitch sodden, requiring a lengthier half-time break to sweep some of the excess water away.   Nevertheless, Salt Lake dealt well with the conditions and looked the better side.  They got themselves ahead and looked set to make history for US football.  In the 76th minute Cruz Azul finally roused themselves and took advantage of a lack of concentration by the visitors.  Orozco, in inspired form as the game went on, scored three quick goals to put Cruz back in front.  As if that wasn’t painful enough, Salt Lake gave themselves some hope of at least salvaging a draw as Johnson scored a valid goal to bring this crazy match all square at 4-4 in the 92nd minute.  Unfortunately for Salt Lake that wasn’t the end of the scoring.  As Tavares once reminded us, it only takes a minute.  And indeed it did as in the 93rd Christian Giménez fired home from the edge of the penalty area to give Cruz Azul their first points in this year’s tournament and leave RSL wondering what hit them.

It was the second time in two nights that MLS teams had lost with the last kick of the game in Mexico as Columbus Crew succumbed to Santos Laguna on Tuesday.  Ivan Estrada scored the winner in the 93rd minute of extra time.  Events earlier in the game led Columbus to later announce they would lodge a protest about the standard of the refereeing as the conspiracy theories continued to whirl.  In one of the strangest disallowed goals you may ever see, Columbus midfielder Emilio Renteria took an elbow in his face and got blood on his shirt so he left the field to get a new one.  The fourth official (a Mexican by the way) appeared to clear him to rejoin the game (which he is not allowed to do but it also appeared that Renteria checked with the referee). The new shirt Renteria was wearing had no number on the back.  Moments later he flew down the right wing and swung over a beautiful ball for Andy Iro to head in.  Following protests from the Santos bench the referee then disallowed the goal and booked Renteria.  Two reasons for this have been given, firstly Renteria was told the goal won’t stand because he had no number on his shirt and was ordered to leave the field to get a new shirt, and then after the game the reason given in the referees report was for entering the field of play without permission.

Getting suspicious yet?  Many US fans are and have begun to look at the CONCACAF Champions League as an unnecessary addition to the fixture list.  Attendances are down for CCL games in the US and star players are often rested.  Any conspiracy against MLS teams is extremely unlikely but there probably is something in the argument that the standard of refereeing in this competition often leaves a lot to be desired.  At the worst the officiating may be comical but it’s not malicious.  Congested fixture lists and long distance travel make it difficult to maintain concentration and fitness and these are often used to explain poor performances away from home.  There have been calls for the MLS to make it easier for the teams competing in the CCL, in terms of re-scheduling and additional roster allowances.  This would certainly help, however Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis also appeared to implicitly question the professionalism and competitiveness of the Major League itself.  In a telling quote he stated that sometimes in the MLS when losing by 2 goals teams stop playing, however as Salt Lake discovered to their cost, “there is no quit in Cruz Azul”.  Even if this is not the case MLS teams have certainly struggled.  Only two have made it through the group stage of the tournament in its current format, Houston in 2008 and Columbus in 2009 and both were eliminated in the next round.  LA Galaxy won the old version in 2001, when the final was held in Los Angeles.  The MLS organisers say that the CCL is an important tournament, and they want to do well.  Commissioner Don Garber told Sports Illustrated, “We need to prove our value and worthiness against our regional rival, and winning the Champions League would be a great way to do that.”  Even though Columbus and Salt Lake have reason to feel aggrieved the signs in these recent games are that the MLS is getting closer to its first win in Mexico.  Both came close against strong teams but in truth the MLS teams simply are not yet as good as their Mexican and Central American counterparts and are being left behind.  The winner of the CCL gets a place in the FIFA World Club Cup and the international recognition and exposure that this tournament brings is important.  If the MLS were to make an impact in this competition it would be a significant step in raising the profile of the league.  At the moment the Mexican teams are the ones doing this.

In other news, Saprissa finally seem to have put their terrible start to the season behind them as they won 4-1 at home to Marathón.  They were helped by a red card for Marathón striker (and owner of the adult-movie-star name of the week) Randy Diamond after he followed through on Saprissa keeper and left him bleeding from his face.  The game was tied at 1-1 and Diamond’s challenge came in the third minute of first half stoppage time.  The referee made the correct decision to send him off and Saprissa controlled the game from then on.  As La Nacion stated this fixture was like being bathed in self-esteem for Los Morados and indeed that was exactly what they needed.  They have struggled to find any form in the domestic league and were lucky not to lose by a greater margin against Monterrey in their first CCL game.  Scoring four against a compliant opponent could be the kick-start they need to get both their campaigns on track.

Each team has now played two games in the CCL and already some of the groups are starting to look a little clearer.  Group A has resolved the least with all four teams on 3 points.  Group B is looking good for Santos, and Columbus Crew should be feeling confident about finishing second.  Group C looks good for Monterrey but disastrous for Seattle, while Saprissa and Marathón are level in second.  Group D has Toluca and Puerto Rica Islanders tied for the lead and each will be hopeful of progressing.

The next round of CCL games begins on September 14th.

Round 2 results:

Arabe Unido                         1-0      Toronto

Santos                                   1-0      Columbus Crew

Cruz Azul                               5-4      Real Salt Lake

Puerto Rico Islanders          4-1      FAS

Seattle Sounders                 0-2      Monterrey

Toluca                                    4-0      Olimpia

Saprissa                                4-1      Marathón

Municipal                               1-1      Joe Public

Alistair will be writing regularly for IBWM and if you'd like to read more from him please visit Sol y Sombra.  Our friends at TOFFS are doing some amazing deals on retro football shirts from North and South America, including Seattle Sounders, here

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