Apparently the expectations were too high for MLS teams after having come so achingly close last year in barely losing to superior Mexican sides. DC United reloaded dramatically with experienced foreign talent, while Houston added a few finishing touches to their MLS Cup winning team. Unfortunately, it looks as if neither team took as many steps forward as they expected.
In particular, what a dose of reality DC was slapped with in Mexico. For all the talk of having a team capable of being the first MLS to win in Mexico, and I was drinking the kool-aid right there with them, DC was absolutely toyed with by Pachuca, in a game that should have had an even worse scoreline if not for the Mexicans cruising along in second gear for most of the match.
Granted, the off-season acquisitions brought in by DC United for just such an international occasion performed pretty well, and a healthy Jaime Moreno and Ben Olsen might well have swung things a little more DC’s way. But Pachuca was missing some talent too. Bottom line, DC was completely out played by the Gophers and it wasn’t even close.
Not that I’m much of a stat guy, but here’s one that is about as telling a stat as there is. No shots at all for DC. Barely a more than a handful of threatening moments total. I know Fox credited them with one shot, but a shot that’s blocked immediately and comes no closer than eight yards out from the goal isn’t really a shot in my book. To say United was almost completely inept in front of goal is an insult to ineptitude.
Conversely, Pachuca scored twice almost perfunctorily, and it was surely a miracle that they didn’t hang four more on DC. Cacho missed a sitter, Paco Torres rang the crossbar, and there were at least two other close calls that DC survived.
And the fact Pachuca didn’t play particularly well makes the result even scarier. They were flat and uninterested for most of the first half, and DC should have been able to pressure them, and maybe even sneak a goal with a bit more aggression on offense. Instead, we barely strung together three passes in a row and crumbled horribly under the pressure they put on the ball.
That’s maybe the biggest difference, and why MLS teams are apparently just not even close to being ready to take on Mexican teams at their level. DC had two players that were capable of handling the ball under pressure and doing something positive with it. Gallardo and Fred, that’s it. Pachuca had eight or nine guys comfortable enough on the ball to break our pressure with ease. Jaime would have made it three players on our side, but even then, DC is still at a severe disadvantage in terms of skill and savvy.
Gallardo and Fred did give DC some life on offense too, but horrible first touches or panicky fumbles by nearly everyone else prevented DC from creating any kind of dangerous plays for the most part. Emilio in particular looked completely out of whack with the way Gallardo was trying to set him up. If he had a bit more anticipation, Gallardo would have sprung him for breakaways at least three times. Emilio also would have had an easy tap in if he’d reacted decently on a wicked Gallardo cross through the box late in the game too. But, Niell struggled mightily too and looks for the foul way too often, and McTavish was a non-factor, so Emilio shouldn’t take all the heat.
At least defensively United put up a heroic effort against a team that hammering away at them like waves on a beach. Peralta and Martinez were absolute studs in the central defense, and Simms held his own too. Namoff and Burch hung on by their fingernails as well. So, despite the lack of any decent possession, DC had a chance to keep the scoreline close if not for an appalling mistake by Zach Wells.
The big keeper was brought in because he was supposedly ready for these types of challenges, and he failed completely on that first goal. It’s a high school mistake to cheat so far towards the cross that you can’t recover if there’s a shot taken by the wide player. Yes, Montez hit a great shot, but a professional goalkeeper simply can’t get beat to the near post by a 20 yard shot from a tight angle. Arguably, he should have gotten to their second goal too. Nice driven freekick by Gimenez for sure, but that’s a shot stuffed in by Montez again from three yards off the line. It would have been nice to see Wells keeping order in his own six yard box.
Now, DC has a huge hole to dig out of against a team that is clearly better than them. So much for the feelings that United is getting close to Mexican teams in terms of talent. Nope, DC is back to hoping the Mexicans under-perform on the road so they have a chance in the return leg at RFK. That could happen too, as Pachuca might well feel the job is done, and they historically coast on the road in Concacaf anyway.
Houston on the other hand might even be in worse shape. At home in Robertson stadium, they were all over Saprissa, but failed to score a vital goal that they will wish they had once they get stuck in that cage with rocks pelting down on them down there in San Juan. Saprissa deserves a lot of the credit too. Their defense bent a little, but did not break. It was classic road tactics that saw them possess well enough o limit Houston’s chances so that the few they did get weren’t put away.
That total lack of precision in front of goal that doomed Houston. Caraccio was lively but only threatened when taking advantage of a rare mistake, not in terms of creating or finishing plays on his own. But, the real culprit was Brian Ching, who literally had three golden looks at goal to score with his preferred lethal forehead, but missed all of them wide, not even forcing a save. Those misses will haunt the Dynamo when they venture into that seventh ring of hell Saprissa calls a home field next week.
So there you have it. MLS seemed to be making strides in Concacaf, even to the point of building on last year’s achingly close exits to Mexican sides in series that they arguably deserved to win. Instead, DC and Houston clearly took a step backward and are once again looking like the semifinals is about the best they can reasonably expect in this region.
Certainly a gloomy week for MLS. Hopefully, Pachuca craters in RFK, so DC has a shot at knocking them out, maybe even Houston stuns the preening Ticos in their house, but it doesn’t seem likely either of those things will happen because either MLS team outplays their opponent. Nope, if DC beats Pachuca by three, or on PKs, it will be because Pachuca tanks it. DC is not three goals better than Pachuca in a straight up match. Houston too, only needs a goal, but in that venue, Saprissa would have to tank badly to not score more than that.
So much for thinking MLS is ready to win at the highest levels in this region on their own merit. We’re still on the outside hoping that our opponents play badly in order to have a chance at winning.