August 2, 2010
By JACK BELL | NY Times
Major League Soccer has been relentless, and moderately successful, in chasing global acceptance. But in the major regional competition, the revamped Concacaf Champions League, M.L.S. teams have experienced embarrassing results.
None more so than the preliminary-round series between the minor-league Puerto Rico Islanders and the current top team in M.L.S., the Los Angeles Galaxy. Last Tuesday, the Islanders, who are in last place in their conference in USSF D2, took the long flight from San Juan to Los Angeles, via Charlotte, N.C., and came away with a shocking 4-1 victory.
“We have a history in this tournament of beating big teams and we always knew we could get a result, but 4-1? Never in our dreams,” said Islanders’ defender Marco Vélez, 30, the only native of Puerto Rico to have played in M.L.S. (38 games with Toronto in 2008-9). “We have a young team and it’s taken some time to get together. But now we haven’t lost in the league in five games. Then we went to L.A. and won. This is just a great opportunity to keep playing later and to start early if we make it past the first group stage.”
The Concacaf Champions League is modeled after the successful UEFA Champions League. The winner of the tournament earns an automatic berth in the annual FIFA Club World Cup, which this year will be played in the United Arab Emirates in December. Concacaf will be represented by the winner of the 2009-10 tournament, Pachuca of Mexico.
In last season’s competition, M.L.S. sent three teams to the group stage (Columbus, Houston and D.C. United) after the Red Bulls were eliminated by W Connection of Trinidad and Tobago. The Crew made it to the quarterfinals. Mexican clubs have won the tournament (which was called the Champions Cup until last season) five consecutive times.
“I believe we’ve got to win these games,” M.L.S. Commissioner Don Garber said last Wednesday night before Manchester United beat the M.L.S. All-Star team, 5-2 in Houston. “We’ve got to win the Champions League, we’ve got to get our clubs playing toe-to-toe against Mexican clubs. We’ve got to hope to someday be one of the best leagues — if not the best league — in the region.”
Wins against visiting European teams preparing for their league seasons are one thing, but victories in meaningful international competitions have been elusive for M.L.S.
Last week, the three M.L.S. teams in preliminary round of the regional champions league squeezed home games into their busy schedules. And although Toronto and Seattle won, the narrow 1-0 scores look precarious as the clubs prepare for Tuesday’s return matches in Honduras and El Salvador after weekend M.L.S. games.
The task for Los Angeles is even greater, having to travel to Bayamón, P.R., for Wednesday’s game after Sunday night’s 3-2 loss at home against Chicago. Against Puerto Rico, Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena used all of his regular players except for goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and defender Omar Gonzalez. The 16 winners in the preliminary round advance to the group stage that is composed of four groups with four teams each in a competition that runs into November, then resumes in February after a winter break.
Puerto Rico has had outsized success in the tournament, especially in 2008-9 when the Islanders ousted Alajuelense of Costa Rica in the preliminaries and then advanced from the group stage to beat Marathón of Honduras in the quarterfinals before losing to Cruz Azul of Mexico in the semifinals.
“Los Angeles had everything to lose and us everything to gain,” Vélez said. “We just came out and played. We knew that Landon Donovan likes to get the ball and come inside from their left side so we always had someone in the middle with him. We stayed compact and used our big target up front, Nick Addlery.” Addlery is a striker from Jamaica.
The Galaxy will need to outscore the Islanders by at least four goals for the away goals rule to come into play.
“We’re confident we can get the result,” Vélez said. “We’re just thinking about doing the same thing as we did in L.A. We won’t give up.”