The quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League opened on Tuesday and Wednesday with a quartet of disappointing results for the four MLS teams left in the competition.
Even though D.C. United, Seattle, Real Salt Lake and the L.A. Galaxy all showed signs of promise at certain points of their respective matches, they all displayed the qualities of clubs still working their way through the preseason.
Now as the four teams enter the return legs of their fixtures with clubs from Mexico, the outlook for an MLS side to remain in the competition is bleak at best.
D.C. United set the unfortunate tone for MLS in the knockout round in the opening quarterfinal clash against Queretaro. The Black and Red, who fielded most of their first-team squad, held firm for 70 minutes before they were undone by Yerson Candelo's magnificent strike from the right side of the pitch. A second goal from Edgar Benitez and the failure to score on the road put D.C. in a precarious position heading into Tuesday's contest at RFK Stadium.
Seattle showed plenty of promise on its home turf against Club America, but a few lapses led to a pair of away goals that will be hard to get back at the Estadio Azteca on Wednesday night. The good news for the Sounders is their attack looks somewhat functional, or least Clint Dempsey does, which is more than the other three MLS sides can boast. Dempsey carries plenty of big-game experience at the Azteca into the second leg, but the challenge of scoring two away goals and keeping a clean sheet may be too much for the Sounders.
“I think Clint’s leadership is by how he performs on the field,” Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid told Cameron Rizzardini of SoundersFC.com. “What he gives the team, and his ability to hold onto the ball and connect passes for us. Being able to put his foot on the ball and slow it down for us at the right times and being there when the opportunity presents itself, to score goals. I think that’s the way he leads.”
Real Salt Lake suffered from the same fate as D.C. in their visit to Tigres. The Claret and Cobalt defended well for two-thirds of the match before the host Mexican side displayed its true quality and bagged a pair of tallies in the second half. Jeff Cassar's men stand a decent chance of advancing to the final four because of the home-field advantage they possess at Rio Tinto Stadium, but containing Andre-Pierre Gignac, Jurgen Damm and the rest of the Tigres attack will be a difficult task.
“I have a lot of respect for them," Cassar said, per Matt Gaschk of RSL.com. "With that being said, we created a lot of chances tonight and showed what we are capable of. On a different night, we come out of here with a result that we wanted.”
Many people thought the L.A. Galaxy with all their star power could be the one MLS side to earn a positive result in the first leg. A 0-0 draw at home may not be considered positive given the chances Bruce Arena's side wasted, but it also isn't a terrible result. L.A. enters the second leg with the best chance of any MLS club to qualify for the semifinal round since it didn't let in any away goals at the StubHub Center.
"It was a good game for us. We played really well," Giovani Dos Santos told LAGalaxy.com's Adam Serrano. "We showed all the people that we did a great job in the preseason, and we're very excited for the second leg."
Trying to spin these four results into a positive is a near impossible task, but you do have to give each team credit for at least being competitive for 60 to 90 minutes in each match. If a few chances bounced in the right direction for a few clubs, MLS would have a slight chance of challenging Liga MX for first place in the competition for the second straight year.
But the harsh reality remains that the CONCACAF Champions League schedule favors Liga MX clubs, and the teams from south of the border have enough quality that helps them pounce in an instant. MLS is trying to get to that level with the influx of target allocation and other initiatives, but the league is still a few steps behind Liga MX, and that is completely fine for the 21-year-old league.
"It’s a reality, we’re used to it, but it doesn’t set us up to succeed," D.C. boss Ben Olsen said of the schedule after his club's match, per the team's website. "It’s not an excuse, it’s just a reality. But until CONCACAF changes it, it’s the reality and we do our best. I think it will change but in the meantime we have to do what we can with what we have."
Going in as underdogs with nothing to lose next week may help the four MLS sides remaining in the tournament, but it isn't the tag the league wished they would carry after 90 minutes of the quarterfinal round.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.