Thursday, November 6, 2008
USL teams prosper in CCL, unlike MLS counterparts
Jeff DiVeronica, Special to ESPNsoccernet
MLS teams can sell whatever excuses they want to explain their dismal performances in the CONCACAF Champions League, but it seems most people aren't buying them.
"Maybe the [busy] schedule was a lot for them," Montreal Impact coach John Limniatis said. "But the schedule for us and Puerto Rico was, to some extent, almost inhumane."
The Impact and the Islanders still managed good showings in the USL First Division playoffs while balancing two preliminary and six group-stage matches in the Champions League. Their success -- both clubs already have advanced from the group stage to February's quarterfinals -- has been a boost for the image of the USL First Division, which ranks a rung below MLS on America's soccer ladder. "I think people have to realize the USL is a much better league than they think," said second-year Puerto Rico coach Colin Clarke, who brings a unique perspective having coached in MLS with Dallas from 2003 to 2006. "I think that league, MLS, has gotten weaker, and ours has gotten stronger." Were a congested schedule and fatigued players the undoing for MLS? Could the USL squads have better depth? Did the MLS teams simply not take the Champions League seriously enough, treating it like they usually do early rounds of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and not using their best players?
Could the USL's style of play, considered more physical and aggressive than that of MLS, have helped Montreal and Puerto Rico against teams from Central America and the Caribbean? It probably was a combination of all that, Limniatis and Clarke said. MLS teams such as New England (0-2) and Chivas USA (0-1-1) didn't even qualify for the group stage after losing to Joe Public (Trinidad and Tobago) and Tauro (Panama) in the preliminary round. D.C. United went 0-5-1 in Group A and won't move on, and the Houston Dynamo are 1-1-3 in Group B. Houston needs to win its Nov. 26 finale against El Salvador's CD Luis Angel Firpo to secure a quarterfinal berth. That's 1-9-5 overall for MLS if you're keeping track. Puerto Rico went 3-2-3, including qualifying and Group D play, and Montreal was a stellar 4-1-3 through the end of its Group C play. Each finished second in its group. The Impact's only loss, 2-1 to Mexico's Atlante on Oct. 28, came after they already had secured a quarterfinal spot. Puerto Rico, the USL regular-season champion (15-6-9 record) and playoff runner-up, saw Clarke juggle his lineup expertly, using all of his 22-player roster while his club pieced together a 17-match unbeaten streak (9-0-8) that started Aug. 3 and ended exactly two months later. Fatigue? Clarke doesn't buy it. In a 10-day stretch from Aug. 27 to Sept. 5, Puerto Rico played five times. After a six-day layoff, it played five more times in 12 days.
"I think MLS teams complain a lot more about their schedule than USL teams," he said. "I don't know if we're more acclimated, but we deal with it a lot better. We play Friday-Sunday." Two days after Puerto Rico tied Municipal 2-2 in Guatemala in an Oct. 1 Champions League match, it had to square off in its playoff opener in Rochester, N.Y., and Clarke used seven starters. So forgive him if he's short on sympathy. "We had an impossible task tonight," New England coach Steve Nicol told the Boston Herald after a 2-1 loss at Joe Public in its first qualifying match Aug. 26. "We showed our heart tonight. It had nothing to do with our football. What are you supposed to say when they don't have it in their legs?" The Revs had played three days before in Toronto and were in the midst of a five-games-in-14-days stretch (1-2-2 record) that ended with a Sept. 2 shellacking, 4-0, against Joe Public. Stars Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman didn't suit up in that match. "For [MLS] to brush this competition off, it's not correct," said Limniatis, who took over in Montreal early in the season and went 10-6-4. The Impact were third in the USL and reached the playoff semifinals. Even during qualifying for Canada's Champions League spot, Limniatis thought he noticed some MLS apathy while his club battled Toronto FC. "You'd think they'd want to win everywhere they play, but they kind of took it nonchalant in a sense," he said. "Maybe they thought they were going to do better. They didn't put a lot of importance in it." Limniatis said the Impact, who are expected to make a formal bid for MLS expansion this month, might not have been as talented as their foes from Mexico, Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, but they found ways to make up for it. "Sometimes when you don't have as much talent, you compensate with other things," Limniatis said. "We played aggressively, pressured the ball and tried to be physical as much as we can." The USL's harder-edged style might have helped. "I don't think some teams wanted to be involved with [physical play]," said Jonny Steele, Puerto Rico midfielder and USL First Division MVP. "The nastiness of our league, high pressure, high intensity. I think that upset [some opponents]. But we've done well. We think it puts us on the map." Jeff DiVeronica covers soccer for the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle. He also writes a blog, Devo's Direct Kicks.