Major League Soccer’s return to the field may only be as recent as a week, however, some of the league’s top sides have already earned crucial victories in another competition that has historically been a traitorous road.
Wednesday night saw two more MLS sides, Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, pick up first leg victories against Tigres and Chivas Guadalajara, respectively, in the CONCACAF Champions League.
This coming after the New York Red Bulls earned a massive 2-0 win over Club Tijuana on Tuesday at the Estadio Caliente in Mexico.
In the past, MLS sides have struggled against Mexican opposition, which has proven to be the strongest competition in the CCL over its history.
In the modern-day Champions League era (2008-current), five Liga MX sides have won nine CCL titles, including Club America — who is involved in this season’s tournament.
The Champions Cup, which predates the current CCL, saw 23 Mexican clubs capture unanimous titles, while Universidad de Guadalajara was a joint-champion during the 1978 season with Defence Force and Comunicaciones.
Meanwhile, only six MLS teams have ever reached the semifinals or further in the competition, with two of those clubs — Real Salt Lake and the Montreal Impact — both losing in the final.
D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy each captured Champions Cup titles in 1998 and 2000, respectively, but both seasons only featured eight teams in the main bracket.
This season has shown to be a sign of vast improvement though for MLS and its clubs in the CCL. TFC, the Sounders and the Red Bulls combined to beat their opponents by a score of 10-3 during the Round of 16, while winning their first legs by a combined 5-1 in the quarterfinals.
TFC and the Sounders managed to earn positive results in front of their home supporters on Wednesday, but it was the Red Bulls that picked up a historic victory the night prior when they won down in Mexico.
That win for Jesse Marsch and Co. was the third time an MLS side has ever won south of the border, with previous teams boasting an underwhelming record of 3-38-8.
The work is certainly far from complete though for all three clubs, who now have to match their first leg efforts on March 13 and 14. Meanwhile, the Red Bulls will be the only team lucky enough to benefit from playing at home.
But Klinsmann opted for in-form San Jose striker Chris Wondolowski, and it has become old hat for MLS players to gripe when their name is not called by the German boss (See: Benny Feilhaber, Brad Evans and Landon Donovan).
Don’t count Morris in that group. Of course the youngster doesn’t have the tenure to rally against the man who gave him his shot in the first place, but that hasn’t stopped others from acting entitled to a roster spot.
“[Klinsmann] told me not take it too hard and that there was a lot of competition,” Morris said. “I completely respect his decision. There were a lot of good forwards playing and they’re all playing really well. I wish those guys all the best. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch this summer.”
The youngster did admit increased motivation from his omission, stating that “it gives you fuel to your fire to try and get back in the mix a little bit”. We have a feeling he won’t be out of that mix for long.
From staring out the windows of Swiss trains to the color of his goalkeeper shirts, art has never been far from Stefan Frei’s mind.
The 30-year-old backstop spent some time talking with ProSoccerTalk this week as Seattle prepares for a match with Colorado and Frei oversees the production of a massive ‘tifo’ project for a future Cascadia Cup game.
We spoke with Frei about plenty of on-the-field topics, from the Sounders’ early season form to his early days in Toronto and the character of USMNT prospect Jordan Morris, but the project is one of those rare corporate projects that fits the bill as interesting.
Frei has designed a 200-foot long, 75-foot high canvas that will be painted and constructed by fans across Seattle, a project with Delta called “The Fabric of Sounders FC“. That started with middle school artists who helped him put the “first splashes of paint” on the project this week.
And it’s giving Frei insight and appreciation for what Seattle supporters do on their own time to make match day special, as he lauded the inspiration of the Emerald City Supporters.
“I did all the designing it, but how do you translate the design that I did digitally onto canvas? You can probably speak to our supporters because you need a lot of hours, sweat and tears,” Frei said. “In stages throughout the year we’ll go out into the community, take snippets of the design and allow people to paint it along my guidelines.”
All of that will culminate with a flight of fans heading down to Portland from Seattle and doing some of the installation on the plane.
Frei’s love for art is innate, and he didn’t find it in a gallery (at least at first). As a young player taking trains to school and practice, the attraction was outdoors, but not nature.
“What you see when you’re peering out of the train a lot in Europe is graffiti,” he said. “For some reason, it caught my eye. Especially old school graffiti that used very flashy colors, bright, in your face neons. I was fascinated by it, and I started doodling. In sketch books and things, not on walls.”
The ‘keeper wanted to study art at California, but couldn’t because of his soccer schedule. An architecture major had the same obstacles. So he’s relishing the opportunity now, launched by his designing of a tee-shirt to go with Seattle’s 2016 kit launch.
In an odd twist of fate, Frei would love to wear the Sounders’ rave green in his goalkeeper kit. He cannot for obvious reasons, and also rarely gets to choose what he wears (he says he loves this year’s “highlighter yellowish-green type deal”).
That’s fine, though, because he has plenty of on-field concerns. The Sounders’ season has suffered fits and starts as the club adjusts after the departures of Obafemi Martins and Lamar Neagle this offseason, with more responsibility than expected heaped onto new boy Morris.
“The biggest thing I want you to take away from this is he’s got the right head on his shoulders. Before I was pro, I played with tremendous talents but unfortunately they stayed talents because they thought they had it all and wouldn’t need to work any more. And they lost it all and people will never hear from them again.”
“Jordan was raised by a really good family and he knows what he needs to do. Some people might question why he came to MLS and he gave it some serious thought. It wasn’t some immature decision and ultimately he came to the conclusion that this is what he wanted to do. The best thing I see from him is day-in day-out he knows he’s got a lot more to do. He shows up for training.
“He works his butt off.”
Morris had a slow start to the season goal-wise but netted in four-straight before seeing the streak snapped in a 2-0 Sunday loss to Dallas. The adjustment to the professional level was supposed to be easier, and come over time, but Martins left for China.
“It doesn’t help when your top striker leaves a couple of days before your season starts.”
That’s put the onus on Frei and his veteran leaders to keep stability around the training ground. He uses the term “even keeled” several times in describing the room, saying Seattle doesn’t get too high off a win streak or “devastated” by losing skids.
And Frei makes a good point when it comes to consistency. From his perspective, losing even a handful of players is a mild offseason given what he went through as a youngster in Toronto. Drafted 13th overall in 2009, he won the starting job almost immediately. He also saw a lot of players in front of him before leaving for Seattle in December 2013.
“For me to have coaches to put me in as raw as I was huge,” Frei said. “I faced a lot of shots. Unfortunately we went through tough times. Would I take any of that back? No. It’s made me appreciate what I have now a lot more. When we have an offseason with Sounders where we get rid of three, four, five players, people are like, ‘Wow, you’re really cleaning house’. Sea
There’s been a bit of the unlucky in Seattle’s slow start, too. In addition to Martins’ untimely departure, the Sounders have conceded five penalty kicks in 10 games.
“We can’t really control those things, what we can control is keep your head down and work your butt off,” Frei said. “Everybody does that here. That’s why I enjoy going to work here every day. It makes for a really good work environment.”