The various stakeholders in MLS are understandably giddy.
In the quarterfinal first legs of the CONCACAF Champions League, MLS teams delivered a clean sweep of their Liga MX counterparts. The New York Red Bulls defeated Club Tijuana 2-0, marking the first time an MLS team had prevailed in the away leg against Liga MX opposition. Toronto FC followed that up with an impressive comeback over reigning Liga MX champions Tigres, winning at home 2-1. The Seattle Sounders completed the trifecta by defeating Chivas 1-0 at CenturyLink Field.
Now it’s time to apply the brakes; maybe not with whiplash-inducing force, but with significant pressure nonetheless. The job of MLS teams is far from done.
The general rule of thumb in the CCL is that for an MLS team to advance during the knockout stages, one of two things needs to happen. If the MLS team is hosting the first leg, it needs to win by multiple goals. If the first leg was away, then it needed to avoid losing by multiple goals.
There have been exceptions along the way. The only time an MLS team overturned a multigoal deficit from the first leg came back in 2004, when the Chicago Fire recovered from a 5-2 loss in the first leg against Trinidadian side San Juan Jabloteh by prevailing 4-0 at home.
A two-goal advantage from the first leg wasn’t enough for the Houston Dynamo against Pachuca in 2007, and the same was true for the Montreal Impact against Santos Laguna in 2009. Perhaps most famously, Real Salt Lake couldn’t take advantage of an away draw against Monterrey in the 2011 final, and the same was true for the Montreal Impact in the 2015 final against Club America. That said, such performances in the first leg at least set teams up well for the return encounter.
The usual disclaimer whereby past performances are no guarantee of future results applies. MLS has certainly evolved throughout the years, and as I pointed out on Wednesday, increased spending by the league’s teams at the high end of their rosters, as well as the maturation of academies, has increased roster depth and helped decrease the talent gap compared to Liga MX teams.
But such history certainly doesn’t bode well for Toronto and Seattle. Yes, Jonathan Osorio’s dramatic winner has raised hopes around BMO field, but it’s worth noting that Tigres still head back to Monterrey with a valuable away goal. Seattle emerged from the first leg with a lead and a clean sheet, but the Sounders will be hoping that the chances they squandered in the first leg don’t come back to haunt them.
The Red Bulls are in uncharted territory for an MLS side, not only because of where they won but also the two-goal cushion they’ll take back to Red Bull Arena. Yet ESPN FC colleague Eric Gomez is right to point out that it took a heroic, 13-save performance from goalkeeper Luis Robles for New York to emerge from the Estadio Caliente with a win. It’s unrealistic to expect the Red Bulls to concede the same quality and quantity of opportunities in the return leg and still come out on top. Sure, playing at home will help, but Tijuana is still alive, and will take solace from its ability to create chances against the Red Bulls.
The three MLS teams have no doubt put themselves in position to advance. But now each of them has to close the deal in order to take a step forward for themselves and burnish the reputation of their league.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.