Taking stock of the four CONCACAF Champions League semifinalists
Vancouver will take on Tigres UANL, while FC Dallas will face up against Pachuca in two-legged series which begin later this month. And so, we ask again: Will MLS finally win this thing? Here’s a look at the two remaining hopefuls:
Might FC Dallas be the first Major League Soccer side to win the CONCACAF Champions' League, even without Mauro Diaz?
Don't count the Dallas out. There's enough quality here to contend with Pachuca in the semifinal home-and-home, and having that first leg at home, with an opportunity to build a reasonable advantage, provides the means to become the third (or fourth, depending on Vancouver) MLS club to reach the final series. Oscar Pareja's team sure seems to be the league's best bet.
Dallas was the best team in last year's regular season, winning the Supporters' Shield and U.S. Open Cup -- its first major trophies in nearly two decades -- and who knows how the MLS Cup playoffs might have gone had Diaz, around whom everything pivoted, not snapped his Achilles in mid-October. He won't be back until summer, so Pareja and Fernando Clavijo, maybe the wisest head coach/technical director pairing in the league, responded by broadening and deepening the attacking options.
Aging Javier Morales has been brought in as like-for-like cover for Diaz in a 4-2-3-1 alignment, and Paraguayan forward Cristian Colman and Ivorian-Belgian winger Roland Lamah add dynamism in, especially, a 4-4-2 formation. The latter tore up Arabe Unido in the first leg -- Dallas looked better than any MLS team has a right to be in February -- and if the former wasn't quite as impressive Wednesday night in Panama, remember that the series, for all intents, was already over.
History says winning Champions League is unlikely, and the timing of the knockout phase -- always an issue -- is the primary culprit. Dallas has played two competitive matches, and Pachuca is eight games into its Liga MX Clausura slate, plus the 4-0 quarterfinal triumph over Saprissa. In 10 outings, Los Tuzos have conceded five goals.
It's worth noting that six of the eight finals, since the switch to the current “league” format in 2008, have been all-Mexico affairs. The other two involved MLS teams -- Real Salt Lake in 2011, Montreal Impact in 2015 -- who, tellingly, faced Costa Rican opposition in the semifinals.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS FC
The Whitecaps flamed out last year in Major League Soccer, finishing ahead of only punchless San Jose and inadequate Houston in the Western Conference, but they were lights out in the CONCACAF Champions League, and now the New York Red Bulls are the second league foe they've conquered in the competition.
That's somewhat impressive. Vancouver is the top seed in the knockout stage after going 4-0 last summer/fall, but it also had the simplest path to this stage, facing off against (and eking past) a side in transition (after Dax McCarty's departure) and turmoil (all the front-office shenanigans) that hadn't, like the 'Caps, played a competitive match since autumn.
By seeding, Vancouver is the team to beat. In reality, no way. Here comes Tigre with a powerhouse roster that might not doing the business in Liga MX but sure did tear apart Pumas UNAM in Mexico City. It's a big step up from Sporting Kansas City, Trinidad's Central FC, and the Red Bulls, the team's Vancouver's toppled thus far.
But if the Whitecaps can survive the first leg in suburban Monterrey, they have enough weapons to pull this off and become the second Canadian team to reach the CCL final. They've just got to follow the script they used against New York: Concede possession, defend tightly, use that speed to cause havoc on the counter.
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Even with newcomer Yordy Reyna out until summer after surgery to repair a broken fifth metatarsal, Vancouver can be dynamic in attack, if not always so succinct with the finish. Enter former Seattle Sounders kingpin Fredy Montero, who in his club debut Thursday came off the bench to net the second goal in the 2-0 win. Brek Shea, whose diligent work up top enabled the Whitecaps to repeatedly test Luis Robles, has also been added up front.
Manneh and Alphonso Davies, the most exciting 16-year-old ever to step onto an MLS field, provide that different, special something that comes with extreme pace, touch, instinct and youth. If they're up for the moment -- and if the defense can handle Tigres' firepower, a big if -- the 'Caps are in this, for real. And if not, a hat's off for getting this far.
-- Scott French