Last week’s sweep of CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal first legs by MLS teams led to plenty of back-slapping and “MLS has made it” suggestions, but those with reasonable memories weren’t about to pop champagne just yet, knowing full well that there is still plenty of work to be done in the second legs.
We have seen Mexican clubs rebound from first-leg snoozers to absolutely annihilate MLS teams in years past, so while the trio of MLS teams currently battling for places in the semifinals all impressed last week, they must all know that a flat performance in the second legs could lead to an ugly elimination.
Toronto FC, the Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls are all taking leads into the upcoming second legs, and if they are going to hold on to those leads, they will need plenty of people to step up. Here are three individuals who must be at their best if they’re going to get to the rarefied air of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals:
GREG VANNEY, Toronto FC
The Toronto FC coach doesn’t get nearly as much credit as he deserves for being an astute and improving tactician, but Tuesday’s second-leg clash against Tigres offers him an excellent opportunity to boost his reputation.
Vanney will match wits with highly-respected Tigres boss Tuca Ferretti, who will throw a full-strength squad at the MLS champions after sitting star striker Andre Pierre-Gignac in the first leg. Ferretti is a master tactician, one who is as adept at deploying a defensive-minded side as he is unleashing a team intent on pouring in goals. He is sure to have respect for TFC’s attacking ability, but he also knows that Tigres has the attacking weapons to expose TFC.
Vanney will need to walk that same tight rope. He knows very well that sitting back could be a recipe for disaster, but trying to be too proactive in Tigres’ home stadium could leave the MLS club exposed. For his part, Vanney made it clear on Monday that he plans to have Toronto FC play its game, which suggests TFC plans on going on the attack.
“We’re not going to come in and change a bunch of things and hope to try and get a result here,” Vanney said. “We’re going to play the game we think that is most in the vision of how we want to play. We’re going to play to try and win the game, and as the game progresses we’ll make decisions along the way.”
Those decisions are where Vanney will earn his money. How he chooses to set up his team — whether in a standard 4-4-2, a 3-5-2, or a bit more defensive-minded 5-3-2 — will be important, but the chess game will be in full swing if and when Tigres scores its first goal, or when Ferretti starts making his attack-minded substitutions chasing a goal, whichever comes first. Vanney has shown himself to be a sharp in-game manager, and it will be inevitable that he finds himself in a situation where a tactical shift or substitution could swing the match, so Vanney’s performance will be every bit as important as that of Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco or Jozy Altidore.
CLINT DEMPSEY, Seattle Sounders
Dempsey did his thing in the first leg, scoring the lone goal in a 1-0 victory, but being the competitor he is, it’s a safe bet he knows he let a few other golden chances be wasted. Now he heads down to Mexico with an opportunity to add something to his legacy. For all the World Cup goals, and important club goals he has scored in his career, he hasn’t scored a big goal in Mexico, for club or country.
Dempsey has scored against Mexico before, and has scored multiple goals against the likes of Club America and most recently Chivas de Guadalajara, but scoring in a big game in Mexico is a void on his resume he can fill on Wednesday at Estadio Chivas.
Dempsey, who recently turned 35, must also see this CONCACAF Champions League as a precious opportunity to make history in what could be his last run at a trophy. He may have filled the void of playing in a championship victory back in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup final, but lifting the CCL trophy, and beating some Mexican teams along the way to do it, has to be a dream scenario for the Texas-born U.S. legend.
The Sounders will need a strong performance from their defense to hold off Chivas, and that task will be made a bit easier by Alan Pulido’s yellow-card suspension, but it is tough to envision a scenario where the Sounders advance to the semifinals without scoring a goal in Guadalajara. Dempsey is the best candidate to deliver that goal, something Chivas are sure to know, and will try their hardest to prevent.
TYLER ADAMS, New York Red Bulls
There is no denying that goalkeeper Luis Robles was the most important figure in the New York Red Bulls 2-0 first-leg victory against Club Tijuana, but now that the Red Bulls return home on Tuesday night knowing the Xolos will be desperate for goals, Robles will need his teammates to try and limit the chances Tijuana generates at Red Bull Arena.
That brings us to Adams, who is being thrust into a leadership role in the heart of the Red Bulls midfield this year. He is the perfect player to disrupt Club Tijuana’s attacking forays, and has the athleticism to keep tabs on Ecuadorian playmaker Miller Bolanos, or whichever attacking midfield option the Xolos turn to.
Adams doesn’t have to be limited to being just a destroyer, and his two-way ability should shine through in what could be a very wide open match. He will have his defensive responsibilities, but he also has the engine to transition quickly into the attack, and if Club Tijuana’s midfield gets too far forward, Adams could take advantage on the counterattack.
Tuesday’s match is an ideal showcase for Adams, who has enjoyed a breakout past year. From starring at the Under-20 World Cup, to becoming a difference-making starter for the Red Bulls, and breaking through with the U.S. national team, what Adams needs to do now is to start adding big-game performances to boost his already skyrocketing stock. European clubs are sure to take notice of how he performs in a match like Tuesday’s second leg.