CCL-FCD-So Close and Yet So Far

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F.C. Pachuca (Tuzos) 3-FC Dallas 1  (Estadio Hidalgo, Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico 

Pachuca:  Jara-38, Lozano-80, 90+2  FC Dallas:  Colman-86

Bitter, dispiriting and other adjectives of its ilk come to mind when discussing the exit of FC Dallas (FCD) from the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) semifinal round last night. Others would likely use uglier terms to describe yet another loss by an MLS club against Mexico’s LigaMX opposition in this tournament.  FC Dallas and MLS did all of the right things to prepare for this CCL round: extra salary cap money made available to CCL participants, a lengthy FCD preseason trip to Argentina to play multiple games against top-level Latino opposition, rescheduling last weekend’s roadtrip to Colorado to allow maximum rest and, finally, a weeks training at altitude in Puebla to acclimatize.  None of it mattered as the result was the same as it always is….the LigaMX side wins when it matters.

Progress-not so fast 

This whole series has a hint of deja-vu.  There has been talk recently about how much progress has been made by MLS and that victory in this tournament by one of its clubs is right around the corner.  Maybe that whole narrative is actually wishful thinking.

Ten years ago the Houston Dynamo played a two-legged CONCACAF Champions Cup (predecessor to the CCL) quarterfinal round against guess who…Pachuca.  Like Dallas they won the home leg 2-0 (should have been 3-0) and then went to Pachuca a few weeks later and lost 5-2.  The score was not as bad as it sounds.  After the Dynamo gave back the two-goal aggregate lead in the first 15 minutes, they got over the case of jitters and went after the Tuzos.  Twice the Dynamo took back the aggregate lead…only to see Pachuca tie the score 5 or so minutes later each time.  Eventually Pachuca won in extra time.

There is not a whole lot of difference between that series and the one that just concluded. Houston was among the best MLS could send out and FCD is the same now.  Pachuca had a lot of respect for Houston, just like they do for Dallas now.  The Dynamo gave up two penalties and FCD made two poor defensive plays to concede goals.  Ten years later the end result is the same.  Progress?

Maybe the problem isn’t just about the difference in money between MLS and Mexico

I am not sure that any reasonable amount of new dollars that MLS chooses to invest in its rosters are going to make a lot of difference in these CCL knock-out rounds.  I had the distinct impression that Pachuca could and would score as many goals as they needed to win the aggregate competition in 2007 and I had the same feeling last night.  I personally believe that the issue is much more than the higher salaries paid by Mexican teams.  It has something to do with the ability to play on the big stage, the professionalism baked into the DNA of the club that comes from 80+ years of history, tradition and character in the Mexican league and, importantly, the expectations that come from a fan base that will not tolerate losing to a U.S. team.  This kind of experience and pressure don’t exist in MLS and it probably won’t for a long time.

(April 6 update).  In an interview today with host Jason Davis on SiriusXM’s United States of Soccer, Canada’s TSN Broadcaster Peter Schaad, who called the other semifinal match in Vancouver last night, succinctly summed up this dilemma.  He talked about the cultural gap between soccer in the United States and Mexico…especially the major difference between the sense of entitlement here vs. the hunger down there.  Until we change the culture and find the “hungriest kids”, Schaad stated, “who are most in love with the game, who are willing to do the work and don’t feel they are entitled to it, this gap will always appear”.  He then talked about his conversations with former Canadian National Team players who mentioned that this gap was the same way 10 and 20 years ago.  He did allow that additional money is required, but said his National Team sources talked about how the difference is in the “DNA’ of Mexico.  He finished by saying that the Mexican players had the game in their “soul” and that it would take a long time for us to catch up.

I suppose it is possible that the stars line up perfectly and an MLS teams manages to win the competition in the near future.  Even if that happens, given the state of the intangibles that divide soccer in the U.S. and Mexico, I doubt that the competitive balance between the two leagues will be equal over, say, 10 years of knock-out round home and away matches between the leagues.  The gap is still huge, despite the wishful thinking and Public Relations coming out of MLS.

A good place to start closing this gap would be figuring out how not to give up awful goals 15 seconds before extra time, like FCD did last night.  Bad luck…partially yes, but MLS seems to have a quite a bit of that all of the time in the CCL.

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