Prior to CONCACAF Champions League kickoff last night between Cruz Azul and Real Salt Lake in Mexico City, only two things were clear. First, no MLS side had ever come into Mexico City, or any other part of Mexico, for that matter, and left with a victory. The success rate for crossing the border to steal tombstones was higher, though in that case, failure may be the object, as those who steal tombstones in Mexico are nothing if not tragically sentimental. Second, it had rained. Sideways rain, large-dropped heavy vertical rain, torrential, clear-the-smog mountain-driven rain; it may have even rained ground-up. As such, the field at the Estadio Azul resembled a South Carolina low-country state highway after a tropical depression more than a soccer pitch. It was, in a word, strange. They played anyway, and what followed was more than strange; it was fantastical, it was riveting, and it was, above all, tragic.
Indeed, they played anyway, despite the field conditions impacting the game drastically. Passes literally died in puddles. Chunks of wet turf emerged with every long pass or goal kick. The ball took to water about as well as a car’s motor, dying out on several passes and clearances. Players slid all over the pitch, stifling creativity unless one was willing to risk falling on his posterior to successfully turn a defender. In a less competitive match, the wet pitch would have been the entirety of the story. Indeed, after Alvario Saborio tied the match in the 22nd minute on what can only be called a soft penalty call (couldn’t tell if he’d slipped or actually been fouled) and then twenty minutes later fired Real Salt Lake ahead before the half, I wondered to various twitter folk if the Mexicans would blame the horrendous playing conditions on a 2-1 defeat.
Some of the excuses I expected to hear out of the Cruz Azul camp:
“We were stifled creatively by the wet field…everyone knows Mexican football is prettier and more fast-paced than American…the field slowed us down…it was the great equalizer…in better conditions we win comfortably.”
When Fabian Espindola cushioned the MLS Champions lead to 3-1 in the 67th minute, I became more convinced the Mexican side’s camp would make excuses, and I began fashioning retorts, the most honest being—“Whose fault was the condition of the pitch, Cruz Azul?” In 1881, farmers in Iowa invented the modern drainage ditch, cleaving small ridges in the soil fifteen to twenty yards apart, either with ploughs or larger, shovel like devices. The process took days, if not weeks, but was worth it and nearly doubled soil productivity. Run-off rates weren’t that high with the primitive drains, but at least there was less standing water.
About a century later, civil engineers at the University of Florida began having success with geosynthetic textiles to prevent storm erosion along sand dunes, and someone decided they could apply similar geotextiles to sporting fields to strengthen the soil and its resistance to water. Modern field drains followed. Apparently, I reasoned—Cruz Azul did not get the memo, whether by carrier pigeon in 1881 or by, you know—reading a book about it in the century or so that followed. Safe to say then—I was not prepared to listen to any excuses from the Mexican team.
All Real Salt Lake had to do was hold on and defend (something they are good at, mind you) for twenty minutes, and MLS would finally, unlike the US Men’s National Team, have a “W” on Mexican soil. What happened next was nothing short of a “Hollywood wouldn’t buy this and only Phil Mickelson, New York Mets fans (name a pennant race not taking place in 1969) and Steve Bartman himself can empathize” style collapse. Hell, even Bartman might not empathize. My obligatory baseball cross-reference for the piece demands I remind you that moments after the Bartman incident, Miguel Cabrera hit a run-of-the-mill double play ball to Gold Glove contender Alex S. Gonzalez at shortstop. Gonzales booted the ball, and the rest is Florida Marlins glory and Chicago Cubs black history.
Back to the Estadio Azul. Javier Orozco got one back for Cruz Azul in the 75th minute, a blistering finish Nick Rimando could do nothing about. This was a signal of intent from the Mexican side, at least: they weren’t going to make excuses or devolve the game into a sequence of fouls and dirty play. They would fight back, and if they lost, full credit to the champions of Major League Soccer. This was relieving to me as were the next ten minutes, where Real Salt Lake managed to make safe clearances and kill time, probing forward only on counterattacks.
In the 86th minute, where MLS fans everywhere except Denver could taste a great victory, Robbie Findley (WHO ELSE?) began a sequence of plays that ruined everything. Kyle Beckerman played a nice diagonal ball to the USMNT striker, and Findley, who had come on as a substitute in the 66th minute, made one of his brilliant, patented runs to absolutely nowhere. Nearing the right corner of the Cruz Azul box, Findley hesitated, and presented the option of turning inside, trying to outflank the Cruz Azul defender and run past him, or retreat to the corner to kill time, Findley chose, as usual, the worst of three options: running by the defender. He failed, the MLS champs lost possession, and on the ensuing sequence of events following the Cruz Azul goal kick, a flurry of shots culminated in Orozco completing his hat trick and leveling the match at three.
Real Salt Lake wasn’t finished. Shell-shocked, they lapsed defensively and awarded Azul too much space in front of Rimando, who was left helpless as Orozco netted his fourth goal of the game moments before the game’s final minute. Surely now, collapse was final and embarrassment accomplished, right? Wrong! It was Cruz Azul’s turn to act content, and thinking three points were miraculously in their pockets, they fell asleep and were punished as Canadian Will Johnson leveled for Real Salt Lake moments into stoppage time. Despite everything, it appeared Real Salt Lake would salvage a point on a night that could only be described as rather indescribable. Salt Lake spent time celebrating the equalizer and seemed quite certain Azul would dribble around content with their miracle point, only to find this was a farce and to find this out the hard way, leaving Chaco Gimenez wholly unmarked at the top of the box seconds before the final whistle. Gimenez calmly slotted past (an again helpless) Rimando, and Salt Lake was beaten, 5-4. To call the defeat anything other than crushing would be self-deception.
It is embarrassing and a collapse not often seen in a sport where scoring is supposed to be a low-level miracle. But what does it matter, in the grand scheme of things? How do we rationalize the shock of the defeat? It is extraordinarily difficult to say. On the one hand, Real Salt Lake is a marvelous defensive team. Last year’s MLS Playoffs showed that you could win a championship without much venom in your attack. Get behind Salt Lake and typically you are doomed. Fall two goals behind with seventy-five minutes elapsed, and defeat is supposed to be certain.
Apparently, this is not the case, at least in Mexico. Only one night prior we witnessed Columbus lose a point in stoppage time to Mexican league leader Santos with a late lapse in concentration by midfielder Eddie Gaven, one all the more shocking given the Crew’s dominant defending for more than ninety minutes. This makes the collapse of the cup holders even more difficult to swallow—it was the second straight night a MLS challenge to a Mexican side on home soil was turned aside late, and in both cases, at least half-credit was due to the MLS side choking as much as it was the gritty, play-to-the-end intent of their Mexican opponent. After a summer where MLS stars surely outshined Mexican stars on the world’s largest stage at the World Cup—one at least sensed MLS was situated to strike a blow to the reality or at least widespread sentiment regarding the dominance of the Mexican league. These two defeats are particularly deflating to that cause and seeming momentum, and that’s a damn shame. The fact that it happened in such tragic, shocking fashion to the MLS Champions, who, as Jason Davis wrote so compellingly the day of the match, were “carrying the banner” for the league, is even more devastating.
Should we step back and take inventory of the larger meaning? Perhaps. Kevin McCauley wrote for World Soccer Reader yesterday that the CONCACAF Champions League means very little. Primarily, he cites weakened squads and bad officiating as reasons successful results in the competition don’t necessarily correlate with increased quality and respectability of MLS as a league. His arguments aren’t necessarily wrong, just as American supporters aren’t incorrect to suggest the USMNT’s World Cup was a success because they won their group and lost where most thought they would entering the tournament—in the Round of Sixteen.
The problem with McCauley and others who dismiss CONCACAF Champions League results is that they miss the overarching point. MLS is in a situation where as a league they are, fair or unfair, fighting an international fight for credibility and respectability. Bringing in class players with great soccer left in the tank like Rafa Marquez and Thierry Henry goes a long way in helping combat negative perceptions. Fantastic, high-level soccer matches such as the one between the Galaxy and New York Red Bulls two weeks ago help too. But neither have the argumentative pull a victory over the higher-budget, bigger spending Mexican league in one of their stadiums contains. Is this fair to MLS? Not particularly—especially if sides are fielding weaker lineups than in league play and officiating is shoddy. Nor is it fair in the sense that perception changes slowly—like trust in human relationships, it comes in teaspoons not gallons. This means an MLS victory is a small-step, one cynics brush aside with a shrift “Well it’s about time,” or “they beat a weakened side.” And yet a victory is a step, and it is better than the contrary option, which is also unbalanced. Each MLS defeat creates conditions for an “I told you so” from that guy or gal at the pub who hadn’t really told you anything prior. With each defeat, those people begin talking, and act like they knew it all along. “I told you MLS couldn’t compete,” they say, and it matters not whether they told you that at all. When a loss is as brutal and monumental a collapse as Real Salt Lake’s last night, the “noise in the system” gets even louder. None of that is particularly fair, but it’s the reality of the situation. It is why, beyond the obvious argument that any match played in competition matters, the CONCACAF Champions League does matter, and why MLS can hardly afford its champion to fall as disgracefully as they did last night in Mexico City. The only solution to this problem is to win, and the hard reality is that chances as golden as the league champions had last night won’t come along often to teams from MLS. It is time for a league that is truly growing up and coming into its own to capitalize.
Neil W. Blackmon is the Associate Editor and a co-founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can find him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.