Challenges of CONCACAF Champions League on display in Houston

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HOUSTON, Tex. – The announced attendance was 19,462, but there were nowhere near that many people at BBVA Compass Stadium. Empty orange seats were scattered throughout both bowls of the Houston Dynamo’s home arena, though the crowd was larger than we’ve become accustomed to for mid-week, CONCACAF action. Just like the tournament’s on-field quality, the excitement in the stands remains a work in progress.

It’s difficult to disconnect the excitement from the quality – the tournament’s overall product. On Tuesday, the product produced by Houston and Honduras’s CD Olimpia was notably worse than what fans saw three days earlier when the Dynamo hosted the struggling Philadelphia Union. How can a match between two confederations’ best fail to meet the standard of a game between a contender and an also ran? It’s a disconnect makes is hard to reconcile calls for making CONCACAF Champions League a higher priority.

Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear’s preferences were clear. Only one player among Saturday’s starting lineup was featured in Tuesday’s first XI. Part of that was due to fitness, some older players not able to recover on two days’ rest. A potential stretch of four games in 11 days was another concern. With Saturday’s game in Colorado a possible chance to avoid the Eastern Conference knockout round, domestic concerns prevailed.

The Dynamo still had enough quality to present a decent product, if one squad’s rotation was the only issue. It wasn’t. Olimpia was also playing on two day’s rest, except they had to travel 1900 miles in the interim. They also had to play without one of their prominent players, Honduran international Johnny Palacios suspended for accumulating too many yellow cards.

Those type of contraints aren’t unique to CONCACAF. Other regions deal with identical issues but have seen their confederation tournaments blossom. Fixture congestion is a bigger issue in Europe, where domestic cup competitions play a more prominent role. Still, UEFA Champions League is the biggest club competition in the world. Travel is a much greater concern in Asia, yet the AFC continues to make small strides with its regional championship.

There is, however, one constraint unique to CONCACAF, an obstacle that took center stage Tuesday night. As referee Juan Carlos Guerra kept his cards pocketed through most of the first half, players started questioning (and testing) how far the rules would be stretched. Fuses blew near halftime and players started confronting each other, with Kinnear eventually earning an ejection. After streaming into the ear of assistant referee Hermenerito Leal as he left the field, Kinnear watched the final 50 minutes from the locker room.

Predictably, the second half descended into chaos. Starting with Brian Ching’s booking in the 56th minute, Guerra showed seven yellow cards in a 28-minute window. Houston’s Giles Barnes delivered a two-footed, studs-up tackle, Ching was shoved into a goalpost, Calen Carr pushed goalkeeper Donis Escobar to the ground, and Olimpia defender Brayan Beckeles “cleaned out” Carr with sliding tackle. Only two of those incidents were booked.

Multiple times in the second half, players went face-to-face, letting their frustrations reach the edge of transgression. Yet nobody saw straight red, and it wasn’t until Beckeles picked up a second yellow in the 79th minute that an out-of-hand match lost a player.

Did the referee lose control of the match? That cliché’s used so often it’s difficult to remember what it means. Tuesday, however, may have provided an illustration. After only one yellow card was shown during first half aggressions, players started acting with disregard for punishment, knowing it was unlikely Guerra would escalate from reticence to dismissals. That initial reticence led to the game’s seven-card second half.

None of the day’s eight UEFA Champions League games approached this level of disorder. It was chaos you’d rarely see in Asia or South America’s championships. When you do, it’s usually fan behavior that causes the confusion, not mayhem between the lines.

In CONCACAF, the scene happens too often. Even if Tuesday’s reached a rare depth, confusion is something coaches have come to account for in their preparation. You don’t know if the breaks will go for or against you, but when a referee gives a performance like Guerra’s, you know there will be more random, unpredictable breaks than usual. Your team has to be mentally prepared to play through them.

It’s unlikely this is a problem of fairness – one team being helped more than the other. It is, however, a problem or quality. It’s a problem of perception. It’s an issue for a product that’s struggling to gain traction across the confederation.

Though Major League Soccer fans often complain about the league’s officiating, the problem almost never approaches depths that are commonplace in CCL. It never holds back the competition.

On Tuesday, Andre Hainault’s second half header secured a 1-1 draw, moving Houston into quarterfinals. With the challenges of Champions League on full display, the result became an afterthought.