Did U.S. Soccer and MLS Turn the Tide in CONCACAF this Week?

JVillareal

 

The United States U-20 team shook off a slow start in the 2013 CONCACAF Championships and went on to produce solid wins over Canada and Cuba to advance to the final against Mexico in Estadio Cuauhtemoc in Puebla, Mexico, last Sunday.

In that game, with only 12 fit outfield players (several guys had departed for their club teams once World Cup qualification was secure with the win over Canada), and with more than 40,000 hostile fans looking on, the young Americans went toe-to-toe with the home side, giving just as good as they got, if not better. They gave up an early goal (after starting the game as the aggressors), but responded quickly with one of their own.

From there, both sides created chances in a wide-open free-flowing game. (Highlights here.) The U.S. ran out of gas late—hobbled striker Jose Villareal (above right) had to stay on the field because they had no subs—and gave up a pair of goals in extra time, but they made a statement in the game nonetheless.

Here’s coach Tab Ramos after the game:

“This shows the character of the players that we have coming up in the U.S. Not only are we playing in a difficult environment, but we take a goal early when we’re attacking and the players responded.”

He acknowledged that the main goal was to clinch a World Cup berth, and once that was done, the secondary aim was to try to win the tournament on Mexican soil. They came closer than just about anyone would’ve expected beforehand, and Ramos suggested the tournament was a valuable learning experience for his group:

“There’s no doubt that these are the games where you see the players and how they respond. I have to give the players a lot of credit because it was their first time playing in a situation like this and I think they respond incredibly. They played a great game and I’m very proud of that. I’m happy with my team. I’m satisfied that [the final] was a game in which either one of the teams could’ve won and I think the team did a great job.”

The coach can also take heart in the fact that this wasn’t even his top group of players. There were several first-choice players out injured, and as we said, several others left the team in mid-tournament to rejoin their clubs. The Yanks should be interesting to watch in the U-20 World Cup this summer, and they’ve clearly narrowed the gap between themselves and their neighbors to the South.

If results pan out the way the three MLS clubs involved in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals would like, much the same could be said of the U.S. domestic league and its more longstanding regional rivals.

The Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders, and LA Galaxy all produced decent results in CCL play this week, and all have a fighting chance to advance to the semifinals.

Houston edged last year’s finalist Santos Laguna 1-0 in a hard-fought game at BBVA Compass Stadium, getting an 89th-minute goal from Brad Davis. They’ll be hard-pressed to hold on to that advantage in the second leg at the foreboding Estadio Corona, Santos Laguna’s home stadium, but we wouldn’t put it past Dominic Kinnear and his men in orange.

Seattle lost 1-0 on the road to Tigres, but they’ll come home to the rowdy confines of CenturyLink Field looking to overturn that margin in next week’s second leg.

The Galaxy have the best chance of all, having locked down a 0-0 first-leg draw away to Costa Rican side Herediano. Each team hit the crossbar, and LA had a goal (by the in-form Mike Magee) called back after a dubious offside ruling. A win at the Home Depot Center in the second leg and they’re through.

MLS has never had more than one semifinalist in the history of the CCL. If things go their way next week, they could lock up three of the final four spots.

That would send a message to the region, if not the world, and put the league in a pretty good position to lift its first CCL trophy in the tournament’s current incarnation. (D.C. United won an earlier version of the CCL, in 1998, when the event featured eight teams instead of the current 24.)

Depending on how things play out in the CCL this spring, and the U-20 World Cup this summer, this week in early March could go down as a pivotal one.

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