As we enter the knockout stages of SuperLiga 2008, let me state that while the intensity level was as high for these matches last year, the football has been much better this year.
No offense to anybody, but an L.A. Galaxy side featuring Alan Gordon and Edson Buddle as starting forwards and an injured David Beckham would not have advanced to the knockout stages of this year’s tournament. That having been said, MLS has a lot to live up to thanks to the performance of the Galaxy in last year’s knockout stages. David Beckham’s free kick to sink D.C. United was a thing of beauty, and Chris Klein’s stoppage time bicycle kick was the type of magic that MLS sides have rarely, if ever, produced in a critical moment of a match of international significance.
Had the Galaxy won the penalty shootout, that moment would have been etched in stone as one of the greatest in the history of Major League Soccer. A year later I still feel a tinge of sadness that the Galaxy did not win that match. That night they were a credit to MLS and to the game of football, even if too often last year they were simply a traveling circus without an effective ring leader. Alas, the Galaxy did not win the tournament the year FMF sides used the competition as a pre-season warm-up.
Now the event is being taken seriously, and every participating side came to play, and came to win. Atlante were humbled 4-0 by the Houston Dynamo in the first match, but manager Guadalupe Cruz told Telefutura after the match that his side psychologically had been beaten down and he wouldn’t let that happen again. The match, which was the first decided by more than one goal in SuperLiga history, actually provided the impetus for the Cancun-based side to play some of the best football of the tournament in their next two matches, sweeping away DC United and Guadalajara.
For the second consecutive year, CD Guadalajara (Chivas) needed only a draw against a fellow FMF side in the final group match to advance to the knockout stage of the SuperLiga, and for the second consecutive year Chivas saw defeat and saw their opponent celebrate advancement. But this year Chivas looked more willing to take chances against Atlante than they did last year against Pachuca. But the reality was Atlante was just too good, and Chivas’ backline suspect.
When you consider that Guadalajara got some great breaks, like facing Houston with Franco Carracio as the main scoring threat two days before he was waived while Dwayne DeRosario served a suspension, and having three DC United shots hit the post in their victory at RFK Stadium, any whining about not going through to the semifinals despite having a superior goal difference over Atlante should be spared here. Atlante showed the character that allowed them to win the Mexican Apertura in their first competition since picking up and leaving Mexico City for Cancun by crushing Chivas in the winner-take-all match.
In addition, Johnny Magallon, Mexico’s starting central defender, surely did not impress Sven Goran Eriksson with his poor display of positioning and defending. However, Eriksson, who has taken in many SuperLiga matches thus far, had to be impressed with Edgar Castillio and Fernando Arce of Santos Laguna, who could feel hard done-by only achieving a draw in a tournament where they seemed to lack the type of luck that Guadalajara received.
But when it comes down to it, Pachuca is still the team to beat in these competitions. An indifferent Clausura season in Mexico has not prevented the defending champions of this event from coming to the USA and playing some outstanding football. Despite my pre-tournament concerns about the age of Pachuca’s midfield, they have not only held up thus far but essentially controlled the bulk of the two of the team’s three SuperLiga matches. They next face a familiar foe: Houston.
We’ve seen Pachuca take care of Houston on two previous occasions at this stage of a tournament, including last year’s SuperLiga. While Houston will have revenge on their mind and will no doubt play lights out in the semifinals, would it be smart to actually pick against Pachuca at this stage against an opponent who completely lacks confidence when facing the likes of Christian Gimenez, Gabriel Caballero and others? Not having Stuart Holden, who’s currently with the U.S. Olympic team, is not going to help the Dynamo’s cause.
New England has been outstanding in this tournament. Mexican teams are getting a dose of what it’s like to face a disciplined, tactical European side when facing Steve Nicol’s team, which boasts the talents of Steve Ralston and Shalrie Joseph in midfield. In addition, the speed of Nyassi, Mansallay and Dube gave both Santos Laguna and Pachuca fits. The Revs use patient buildup instead of the frantic going forward without rhyme or reason style many Mexican sides use to achieve results. Atlante have been outstanding in their last two matches, but having watched New England in this tournament, who’d bet against them?
Chivas USA’s performance was a credit to their manager Preki and to the determination of Ante Razov, who, even at 34, is probably the best striking option for the US National Team. Razov scored in all three SuperLiga matches and has in fact scored a goal in six consecutive competitive matches for the Goats. However, no other Chivas player has scored during that stretch, and in this tournament Sacha Kljestan, another US Olympian, was frustrating. He mixed moments of absolute brilliance with moments of stupidity, while the normally steady Pablo Nagamura seemed reckless in this tournament. Chivas was good, but not good enough in a tough group.
That leads us to the one team that hasn’t been discussed in this article to this point, the one team that doesn’t deserve to be discussed, DC United. The performance of United, who entered the tournament never having once lost a match to an FMF side at RFK Stadium and three days later had two losses to FMF sides defies all explanation and logic. Sure, Marcello Gallardo and Gonzalo Peralta were hurt, and Tom Soehn seemed to aggravate Santino Quaranta’s injury by playing him when the team was desperate for a result against Atlante. But, the red and black have always had a standard in these competitions you could count on regardless of who donned the jersey. However, this week was certainly forgettable in the proud history of D.C. United, and was culminated by a smashing defeat at the hands of Houston in front of one of the smallest weekend RFK Stadium crowds I can recall, going back to 1996. D.C. was, in a word, embarrassing, and whether or not you take SuperLiga seriously, their effort didn’t bring any credit to themselves or to MLS.
The TV coverage for these matches on Telefutura has been outstanding. Like last year, the network is utilizing a two-man booth and sideline reporter at the matches, as well as a studio host. This pales in comparison to the typical Telefutura MLS broadcast, which is done at the low end with commentators calling the matches off of a TV monitor, and not providing much in the way of pre-game or post-game analysis.
SuperLiga is a big event when you base it on how Telefutura covers it compared to its weekly MLS or FMF matches. Only in the Mexican playoffs does their production quality or overall game packaging approach that of SuperLiga. Add to it the HD component which Telefutura has offered for these matches in selected metropolitan areas (including Miami, where I reside) and SuperLiga 2008 has been a slam-dunk event for the viewer. Let’s hope this continues in the knockout stages.