In the world of professional club football nothing is more of an accomplishment than competing against and defeating the best teams in your region to qualify for FIFA’s World Club Competition. In the CONCACAF region the club of the decade would have to be Pachuca of the Mexican Primera Division, having won the CONCACAF Champions League 3 times to represent the region in the World Club Competition. Now Fox Soccer Channel covers some of the action in this tournament and I thought I should check it out myself this season. The MLS has not had a good run in this tournament, mostly being embarrassed and dismissed early on. Only three times has an MLS side made it to the final of this tournament, LA Galaxy made it in 1997 and lost to Mexican side Cruz Azul and won it in 2000 by defeating Olimpia from Honduras. D.C. United is the only other side to make the final of the tournament from MLS, in 1998 defeating Mexican side Deportivo Toluca. Now if MLS is to make a step up in the eyes of world football supporters it first needs to be able to compete in its own regional tournament.
Deciding I would see where our MLS sides stood in our region I decided to watch tonight as the preliminary rounds began. There would be two matches on the opening night, one featuring the previously mentioned D.C. United side and the other involving the dominant Mexican club Pachuca. So, while having no real dog in the fight I sat down to watch what would be one disappointing finish and another finish that was to be expected but exciting from the start.
D.C. United (USA/MLS) 1-1 Luis Angel Firpo (El Salvador/Primera)
Going into this match it was expected that D.C. United would bounce back from their performance in the CONCACAF Champions League the previous year and show the world their true talent. Having started out the season well United would be expected to take this match with ease against the smaller side from El Salvador, but as we know these clubs south of the border are no pushovers, especially when they feel they have something to prove. Knowing nothing about Firpo I expected to see United do well in this first match, one that was being played at RFK Stadium, home of D.C. United. I was not surprised to see United come out and control the match and the pace from the start, but one slipup too many is all it took for Firpo to take advantage and give them the away goal they so desperately wanted. The goal took place in the 25th minute when Firpo’s forward Mario Benitez picked up a ball that put him in on the United keeper. With the precision of a World Class striker, Benitez put the ball past United’s keeper and into the net at the far post, giving Firpo a 1-0 advantage early in the match.
At this point United had to be sweating. Having put out a less than stellar side to star the match, Luciano Emilio, Chris Pontius, and Christian Gomez were all sitting to start the match; this first goal saw action start to take place on the sideline immediately. Luciano Emilio would be the first to enter the match in the 39th minute for Ange N´Silu, who reportedly suffered a hamstring injury earlier in the half. Emilio’s entrance made a difference right away as United’s Rodney Wallace would get cut down at the top of the box, receiving a penalty decision on a call that did not even merit a card for the defender. United Captain Jaime Moreno would step up to take the penalty, and like so many times before in his career he would put the ball in the back of the net. With the match evened up it was time to look for the win, and that is just what United looked for during the rest of the match.
Gomez and Pontius would join the match in the 45th for Gomez and the 65th for Pontius, as United continued to press looking for the winning goal. The goal would not come though as Firpo stayed strong, and while not completely closing down, the front men dropped back to help defend their position with the away goal already in hand. The first leg saw Firpo get the best of D.C., leaving the MLS side with a lot of work to do in the second leg in El Salvador. D.C. will be looking for a more dominating match from their side in the second leg of this tie, hoping to not make the disappointingly early exit that MLS sides have come to be known for in this competition of late.
Pachuca (Mexico/Primera) 3-0 Deportivo Jalapa (Guatemala/Liga Nacional)
The second match of the evening would be one that would not disappoint as the Mexican giants Pachuca would face off with Deportivo Jalapa of Guatemala. Pachuca would impress from the start with crisp passing and chances in on goal many times, only to be thwarted by Jalapa’s keeper and defense. Nearing the end of the first half Pachuca would make their breakthrough as Juan Rojas Guerra found Juan Cacho in the box, slotting the opening goal home past the Jalapa keeper. After a hard fought first half by the Guatemalan side they had conceded a goal, one that would take Pachuca into the locker room at the half brimming with confidence, while bringing about despair for Jalapa entering the second half.
The second half would start much the same with Pachuca holding most of the possession, trying to extend their lead on Jalapa, all but ending the hopes of the Guatemalan side. The next goal for Pachuca would not come directly after half though, instead two minutes after Pachuca’s second substitution, which brought on Gabriel Caballero in place of Damian Manzo. The halftime substitute, Edgar Benítez Santander, would send a ball across the box to find the head of Caballero, who put it between Jalapa’s keeper and the near post. This would put Pachuca up 2-0 in the match all but eliminating the chances for Jalapa to come back. Try as they might, Jalapa could not find a breakthrough in the match. Pachuca however would put the final nail in the coffin in the 75th minute, after a Jalapa defender brought down Edgar Benítez Santander right outside the box. Pachuca midfielder, Christian Giminez, would step up and take a beautiful bending free kick that cleared the wall and found the upper 90 past the Jalapa keeper, all but sealing the first leg of this tie in favor of the home side.
Pachuca found many chances throughout this match, and while only capitalizing on 3, they could have scored many more. The Mexican side has started out strong, and although the match was in Spanish audio, I was able to understand enough to know the announcers expect Pachuca to go far in this year’s tournament. On the cusp of starting their new season, Pachuca looks strong. Ball movement looked crisp, and though the first touch was not always there, I am sure by the time the club gets going into the season they will be firing on all cylinders. This was an exciting match that saw many chances go unfinished and tons of link play with the midfield, making for an interesting match to watch as a spectator, even not understanding half of the commentary. The second leg of this tie will be interesting, but I do not think Jalapas is quite on the level of Pachuca, letting them move on with ease.
I can honestly say that I will be following this tournament this year. While the first match of the evening was a dud, the second kept me on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next. I am hoping I have time for all the preliminary matches coming up, I will do my best to let you know about them, but if not I will catch those that I can and report on them as I see them. This was a great night for football in the region and now it is time to look forward to Wednesday’s action, which will include the MLS All-Star Game and more preliminary matches from the CONCACAF Champions League. So keep watching until next time and I will keep reporting.