Empire XI: Spread the Blame When Examining MLS’ Champions League Failure


Staff Writer

Watching Sporting Kansas City falter in Mexico City on March 19 completed a metaphysical punch in the mouth for MLS. Three teams, all in decent positions to win their series, were eliminated by their Mexican counterparts.

It is understandable to blame the players, the coaches or even MLS HQ itself. Just make sure you spread the blame equally.

Frankly, it is annoying that the statement has to be made to begin with. However, such is the state of MLS and American soccer observatory that the need to formulate one pointed conclusion trumps the intellectual honesty of making a more all-encompassing one, one that is more productive for the conversation that we need to have on this issue. What is more frustrating is that while the conclusions drawn are often very informed, they are not synthesized; like a cook choosing the best ingredients at the market but not cooking the actual dish.

There were plenty of players who were outclassed in their team’s second legs and a few that stepped up to the occasion. Earthquakes center back Ty Harden played the game of his life in Toluca despite being San Jose’s fourth-choice center back. Landon Donovan was excellent in both legs with his direct running while Claudio Bieler was unlucky to not see his hard-work pressuring the Cruz Azul defense rewarded with a significant chance.

That being said, Sporting Kansas City’s night should have been worse than what it was. Meshack Jerome’s first half challenge on Marco Fabian in the box was stupidity that bordered on insanity. Jerome can thank CONCACAF’s low standards of officiating for not being punished. (For a fun comparison, watch Jerome’s challenge right after watching Nani’s red card in last year’s Champions League.) Jerome would find out in the second half that trying to tackle everything in sight is generally a bad idea for a defender as he would get yellow-carded and embarrassed by Marco Fabian on left wing.

Since the tactical foul is part of Sporting Kansas City’s DNA, it can be said that while Jerome was the team’s weakest link, he at least knew what he was doing. The same cannot be said about Leonardo. The LA Galaxy center back committed the fundamental sin for a defender: self-isolation.

Leonardo is a better player than Harden.  However, Harden had the better game because he made sure he was always supporting or supported by his teammates in midfield and defense. By doing this, Harden gave himself a slight margin for error because there was an outfield player who could clean up if need be. Conversely, if a teammate’s mistake required some cleaning up, Harden was there. Leonardo did not do either of these things. James Riley is not the LA Galaxy’s first-choice left back. However, with Todd Dunivant unfit from a previous injury, Riley has been thrust into the starting XI. To be fair, Riley has done a serviceable job, but it is pretty well-known that he is not a great 1v1 defender (Most fullbacks in MLS are not either, to be fair).

So let’s use some common sense here. It is well-known that Latin American attacking players love playing in 1v1 situations. You have a backup fullback who is not good at 1v1 situations playing against said attacking players. It might be a good idea to help that fullback out a little bit so that when he does get beat, the attacker won’t have as much time and space to put a ball in the danger area.

Alas, this did not happen and Cristian Pellerano had a field day, forcing Bruce Arena to overhaul his back four for the Galaxy’s next game: a 1–1 draw with Real Salt Lake in which Leonardo was dropped and James Riley went to right back with Todd Dunivant healthy enough to start at left back. Hilariously, the Galaxy managed to leave Alvaro Saborio unmarked at the back post leading to the opener.

Consider that blunder, plus the Champions League blunders for a second and stop talking about how Leonardo’s mid-level salary is justification for a terrible performance and a benching because the current pay structure is flawed. Bruce Arena let Sean Franklin go and replaced him with James Riley and stuck with a 4-4-2 in the second leg despite seeing his team get overrun in the midfield as the first leg wore on.

Those are two inexplicably dumb decisions made by a person in charge of personnel and tactics.

Yes, Landon Donovan was correct when he said the Galaxy do not have enough players that are mature enough for the occasion, but Arena’s tactics suggest that he too should not be given a free pass. Unfortunately, the spirit of 2002 and the consecutive MLS Cups still live on in that regard.

Donovan is slightly incorrect when he cites a payroll raise as being a solution to the maturity question.  Consider the Earthquakes’ effort in Toluca. An inexperienced defense went to a venue against a prolific team that had not been beaten in 19-straight home matches beforehand and shut the hosts down. This came after Toluca got caught filming the team’s training session and before their manager made a farcical claim that MLS’ standard had not improved in the last decade.

Now the next decade comes in mind, while writers at the Washington Post try to jab at MLS’ ambitions instead of realizing how obvious the pieces of the puzzle are laying about, waiting to be connected by a club. The payroll and player question can be linked together. MLS needs to link the salary cap to its revenue in order to keep expenses and revenue in check while ensuring that all players can be adequately rewarded for helping the league improve. This, while maintaining the incentives for teams to sign homegrown players and young DPs. It’s a really simple move that the Players Union should be wise enough to bargain for.

For all of Arena’s errors, Watson’s defensive plans were understated and superb, considering the situation he faced. If the new guard of MLS coaches can be as smart as he was in that situation, this will improve the league’s standard even more. It is not a good thing for every MLS team to try to play the same way, even if it is Porterball.

Lastly, the league just needs to keep doing what it has been doing. Keep the goals it has in mind but make sure it does enough to reward the players who raised the league’s standard while facilitating ways to raise the league’s ceiling as it has done through the DP rule and the HGP initiative.

Let’s not get it twisted — it was a punch to the gut that MLS lost all three ties — but the insight made about the league and its teams lack the unified context that was needed when reflecting on those performances.

Empire XI

1. It was Eric Alexander’s turn to try to handle the playmaking load for the New York Red Bulls — and he struggled. The most annoying thing about Alexander’s performance can be seen in the Passing Matrix on Golazo. Alexander did not make the most amount of passes in midfield; Dax McCarty did, and it was not even close.  McCarty completed 57 passes to Alexander’s 34. Not only did Alexander fail to influence the Red Bulls’ buildup, his midfield partner, who is not technically supposed to influence the buildup, did a better job at it. Safe to say Peguy Luyendula will get his shot in center midfield soon.

2. Slight chuckle for the fact that someone at either Adidas or New York City FC accidentally put in ‘the MLS’ while launching their new online store. While the whole ‘the’ thing only matters if you are a journalist (AP Style), it was just that minor human error on a great night for the franchise. And a great night for people who made the right logo choice as well.

3. From today’s Newsday, the New York Cosmos spent $105,000 lobbying New York State Government in 2013 for approval on their proposed stadium site.   The Cosmos have support from Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and State Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola). The Cosmos have opposition from State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages and her brother, Nassau County legislator Carrie Solages, both of whom represent Elmont, the community the stadium would be built in.

4. Keeping with proposed stadiums, here is Miami’s stadium renderings with appropriate context from the Miami Herald.

5. Toronto FC took another step forward in plans to expand BMO Field approved, despite the objections of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Ford was the only person in Toronto’s Executive Committee to vote against funding for a stadium expansion which annoyed MLSE President Tim Leiweke. The proposal will be voted on by the full city council next month.

6. Samuel Eto’o is interested in signing with MLS. Eto’o’s contract with Chelsea expires at the end of the season and the club has yet to offer the striker a new one. The clubs that do not currently have a DP spot open: Chivas USA, FC Dallas, LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders FC, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC.

7. US Soccer will create a U21 team. This is another step in helping the development of young players here and abroad since it would keep players involved with US Soccer for that intermediary period between the U20 World Cup and the Olympics. The first camp will be next month and it will be intriguing to see who gets included with the most particular cases being Luis Gil and DeAndre Yedlin. Gil and Yedlin have been capped on the senior level and we should know the roster for the April friendly this week or early next week. The two camps do not intersect but if either player gets called into the senior camp for the April 2 game, you can presume that either player will not be fully included in the U21 camp from April 20-24.

8. Yedlin’s case is more intriguing than Gil’s given the US’ precarious position at right back. Steve Cherundolo retired, Timmy Chandler will miss the rest of the Bundesliga season but will race to be fit for the national team by June leaving Brad Evans and Geoff Cameron as the two options right now. Yedlin’s defending has improved throughout his young career but a late game sub in the January camp is the only thing on his national team resume right now.

9. While Clint Dempsey will likely be in that April camp, it’s not like he will be tired anytime soon. The MLS DisCo levied a fair, two-game punishment for his low blow. Really not much else to say about it once you get all the jokes out, and unless Cesare Prandelli and Jurgen Klinsmann trade jobs, there’s nothing to suggest that the latter will exclude Dempsey due to the suspension or the action committed.

10. In a terrible case of irony, Greg Garza’s superb performance against the LA Galaxy may have cost him a shot at joining the US National Team for the World Cup. The left back has done a solid job platooning with Edgar Castillo for Club Tijuana and it is evident that two are on the same level in terms of ability and now, usage. However, both Castillo and Garza are going to be needed by Tijuana for the Champions League Semifinal which coincides with the friendly.

11. A handful of Mexican players who are also likely to miss out on the friendly because of the Champions League: Jose de Jesus Corona, Marco Fabian, Chaco Gimenez, Gerardo Torrado all with Cruz Azul and Issac Brizuela of Toluca.

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