Friday, March 16, 2007

MLS Grit Trumps Mexican Guile

Major League Soccer staked a claim to international respectability on Thursday night as the Houston Dynamo blanked defending Copa Nissan Sudamericana Champion Pachuca 2-nil and DC United stunned 11-time Mexican League Champion CD Guadalajara (Chivas) with an extra-time equalizer for a 1-1 draw in the CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinals. Houston now holds a two-goal lead going into the return match at Pachuca on April 5, while DC heads to Guadalajara on April 3 all even with Chivas.

As significant as the results themselves are -- prior to tonight MLS teams were 1-7 against Mexican opponents in CCC competition since 2002 -- the fire, intensity and toughness of the American clubs was even more impressive. Houston did not have a great game, by any means, but despite defensive lapses and periods of frustrating ineptness, the Dynamo kept their cool in the face of withering, albeit predictable, Mexican "gamesmanship" and fought for every yard of Robertson Stadium. Eventually, it paid off as Brian Ching opened the scoring with his signature play -- a well-placed headball goal -- before substitute Chris Wondolowski iced the match at the end. Pachuca, for their part, whined like over-tired toddlers at Chuck-E-Cheese.

DC's performance was a classic smash-and-grab job. Chivas dictated the tempo, came in studs high and defended like demons in their own third. Most teams would've accepted defeat when Omar Bravo's rather pedestrian header ricocheted into the net in the 63rd minute, but United, to their credit, are not most teams. In a sequence that summed up the night -- and the crucial, defining difference between the MLS and Mexican clubs -- Ben Olsen repelled a Luche Libre-style tackle/mugging and refused to be be baited into a retaliatory foul call to earn a free kick just outside of the Chivas box on the right. While Chivas continued jawing with Bearded Ben, Christian Gomez took his one chance of the evening with aplomb, placing the ball right onto the head of newbie Luciano Emilio for a game-tying goal which set off a frenzied celebration at RFK Stadium.

So there you have it. The Dynamo and DC were stronger, mentally and physically, on the night. And if they can overcome what promises to be even worse behavior in two weeks (hopefully without the benefit of hometown officiating) they can close the deal. They can both reach the CONCACAF Champions Cup Finals. And that, my friends would be a major accomplishment for Major League Soccer.

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