After the rough loss to RSL in their MSL opener on Saturday night, the Galaxy had little time to recover as Wednesday night brought the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal between the Galaxy and Club Tijuana of Liga MX.
All right, let’s break that down. CONCACAF stands for the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football. CONCACAF governs soccer in this area for FIFA, the world governing body of soccer.
Champions League is a yearly tournament that matches the best clubs from the various professional soccer league in CONCACAF to crown the “best” soccer club in the region. The current format qualifies 24 teams to start the tournament. The USA is allowed four entries to the event – 1) MLS Cup winner, 2) MLS Supporters’ Shield winner (best record in MLS regular season), 3) the best regular season record from the other conference from the Supporters’ Shield winner, and 4) the U.S. Open Cup winner (saving that article until later this spring when that tournament starts). Now of course, there are Canadian teams in MLS and if a Canadian team were to be in one of the above spots, the next best US-based MLS team would get the qualification. (The Canadians hold their own version of the U.S. Open Cup to determine the one Canadian entry into the Champions League.)
The tournament is split into two phases. The group qualifying phase is held from August to October. In the group phase, the 24 teams are drawn into eight groups of three, with no group containing both a US and a Mexican club. A double round robin is played with the top team in each group qualifying to the quarterfinals. The quarterfinals are seeded by the results of the group stage with the #1 seed playing the #8 seed and so on.
The knockout phase runs from March until May and consists of two leg series in each round scored on an aggregate goals basis. That is, if Team A wins 2-0 at home and loses 1-0 on the road, Team A advances based on a 2-1 aggregate goals advantage. If the teams are tied in goals after the two legs, the first tiebreaker is away goals. So, if Team A wins 1-0 at home and loses 2-1 on the road and the teams are tied at 2-2, Team A advances because of one road goal to the other team’s zero.
The schedule of Champions League does make for some unusual situations for the MLS teams. The 2012 season was used to qualify for the 2013-14 tournament. And since the MLS season runs from March to December, you have that the 2012 team qualifies for the tournament, the 2013 team plays the group round and the 2014 plays the knockout round – one tournament, three different versions of the same team.
The Galaxy have had success in this tournament before, winning the title in 2000 when the tournament was an eight team single match knockout event played over one week. D.C. United in 1998 (coached by current LA Head Coach Bruce Arena) is the only other US team to have won this event.
But in the current format since 2008-09, Liga MX (the Mexican soccer league) has dominated this tournament. A Mexican club has won all five tournaments. And only once, RSL in the 2011 final, has a non-Mexican club advanced to the final. So it would seem that the road to success for a MLS team is to avoid a Mexican club in the quarterfinals.
The Galaxy’s Road to Here
LA qualified for this tournament by winning the 2012 MLS Cup, which was David Beckham’s last game in MLS. The Galaxy were drawn into a group with Cartigines from Costa Rica and Isidro Metapan of El Salvador. The Galaxy had a relatively easy time in the first three games of the group stage, using an almost all reserve team to beat Cartigines 2-0 and Isidro 1-0 at home, followed by a 3-0 win at Cartigines.
After these three games, the Galaxy had already clinched the group and so the final game at Isidro would only determine what seed the Galaxy would get in the knockout round. A win by the Galaxy would likely have made them the #2 or #3 seed, avoiding the dreaded Mexican matchup in the quarterfinals. Unfortunately, the Galaxy played one of their worst games of the year, conceding four goals over an eleven minute span to one player from Isidro to lose the game 4-0 and drop to the sixth seed and the matchup with Tijuana, or the Xolos as they are known. The xoloitzcuintle is a small, hairless Mexican dog and is the mascot of the Tijuana club.
Weeknight games are always a problem at the StubHub Center. Traffic in the LA area makes it very difficult to get to the 7:00 games. This was no exception. Fortunately, I live and work very near the StubHub, so I was able to arrive about 40 minutes ahead of the start. Soccer in Mexico is obviously a much bigger sport than it is in the US, so it was no surprise to see a tremendous number of Xolo fan in attendance. Once the full crowd arrived, it was roughly a 50-50 crowd for the two teams.
The relative location of these two teams (Tijuana is about two hours away from Los Angeles in decent traffic) means that this was more than a CCL quarterfinal, but also a battle for regional supremacy. Southern California is one of the best, if not the best, areas for soccer talent. These two clubs compete fiercely over all levels of talent – from the academies to the senior teams. The club that wins this matchup will have bragging rights to use to lure the best players.
Unlike the group stage, both teams fielded their front line players. This was going to be a serious matchup.
The Galaxy started quickly. It was very clear early in the match that Landon Donovan was way too fast for the Xolos defenders and that Tijuana was very concerned about Robbie Keane (as they should be). It was this very concern about Keane that led to the first goal of the game by the Galaxy.
Marcelo Sarvas played a ball into the box to Robbie Keane. While two defenders started to converge on Keane, Robbie could not control the ball, which bounced over to Samuel, who buried the ball in the back of the Tijuana net.
There were few other chances in the first half. But all in all, the Galaxy had the better of the action and the chances in the first half.
Things turned in the second half as the Xolos turned up the intensity and their attack. Fortunately for the Galaxy, the man of the match was in goal. Jaime Penedo did everything possible to maintain the shutout for the for the home team. However, Penedo’s best save came about as a result of one of the worst mistakes he’s ever made in a Galaxy uniform.
A Xolo player sent a cross into the box and Penedo went out to either catch it or punch it away, but he misjudged the ball. He was only able get one hand on the ball to deflect it. The ball bounced off of Omar Gonzales and headed straight for the goal. Sitting in the stands on the half of the field where this action was happening, I saw the rebound from Omar head towards the goal and I mentally changed the score in my head. But then a flash came across the goal in the form of “El General”, who batted the ball away from danger even as it was just making its way across the goal line.
While that was the most dangerous situation for the Galaxy in the second half, the Galaxy did have to pack the defense in and survive the second half. The possession battle in the second half was decisively in favor of Tijuana. All of the room that Landon had in the first half seemed to disappear in the second – perhaps Landon hit the wall?
But when the final whistle blew, that lovely zero next to the Xolos was still on the scoreboard – which brings us to the title of this post. Yes, the Galaxy won and they held onto the shutout. That means that next Tuesday in Tijuana, a tie or a one goal loss in which the Galaxy score any number of goals will see the Galaxy advance. However, a lead of only one goal has shown itself to be a pretty slippery item to hang onto. The Galaxy will need a big game, perhaps even a better game from Jaime Penedo to advance to the CCL semifinals for the second consecutive year.
The atmosphere in the stadium was the most electric I have experienced at StubHub. The Xolos fans were extremely vocal and organzied. They challenged the Galaxy fans to match them and those that did show up did their best to match them (by the way, the official attendance of 17,000 was a great overstatement of the actual people in the stadium). It would be quite a sight to have a game between these two clubs on a weekend – the place would be packed.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere was ruined by the behavior of the Xolo players and fans. First, the Tijuana players dive a lot. Finally late in the game, Hercules Gomez of Tijuana was given a yellow card for diving, or “simulation” as it is officially known. That type of soccer is not pleasant to watch.
As for the fans, I thought it was a nice touch that on each goal kick by Penedo, the fans would wave their hands and start to chant, much like fans do on a kickoff in football. As Penedo would approach the ball, the chants would get louder and then they would says something in Spanish right as he kicked the ball. However, I was tipped off on Twitter during the game that they were saying something pretty rude. I did listen closely and, with the help of Google, decided that they were most likely chanting a homophobic epithet at the end of their ritual. It didn’t seem like a nice touch after that.
Maybe this is what a rivalry really is. I now have an deep-seated dislike of the Tijuana team and fans. I want the Galaxy to win this as badly as I wanted them to win in the playoffs last year. As much as there is a rivalry with San Jose, there are players on that team, notably Chris Wondolowski, that I respect and will cheer for on the national team. There is no such player for Tijuana.
Let’s go boys…next Tuesday…no mercy.