In a poor but not unwatchable 0-0 draw that saw three players sent off, the Columbus Crew and Real Salt Lake put on a display that belied the importance of the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal Tuesday. Such was to be expected, given that players are still working on their fitness and match sharpness during the Major League Soccer preseason. What was not expected was the superiority of the Crew.
Here are three observations on the game between the last American teams still in the continent's premier competition:
1. The courageous Crew and reeling Real
All those who had spent more than five minutes watching MLS before this game were unanimous: This contest was RSL's to lose. While both teams were of comparable ability and knocked out in the first round of the MLS playoffs in 2010, a pretty clear divide had opened between them during the offseason. Columbus dismantled, bidding farewell to talismanic playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto as well as a slew of other mainstays, while RSL lost only Robbie Findley and replaced him with Arturo Alvarez. In this game, RSL would show up as the well-oiled machine we saw last year with its control of possession and multi-pronged offense. The diluted as well as injury-riddled Crew would be lucky to avoid embarrassment.
Yet none of the forecast unfolded. It was Columbus that was dangerous, Columbus that was better organized, Columbus that had the quality possession and Columbus that took the chances. In some sterling first-half combinations between Peruvian striker Andres Mendoza, who was heavily involved in all five chances Columbus created, and Emilio Renteria, the Crew looked likely to score. Meanwhile, third-string goalkeeper Ray Burse might as well have avoided the frigid temperatures by staying in the locker room, as he had little to do. Although RSL sometimes managed to combine nicely, Columbus demonstrated that it was better built for games in poor conditions.
In the second half, RSL looked much improved but saw its energy sapped by an early red card for defender Tony Beltran (Renteria and RSL's Nat Borchers were later shown the same-colored card). With the game 10 versus nine as of the 72nd minute, the Crew were still the better side. But they couldn't put a finishing touch on a chance, forgoing an invaluable lead going into the second leg.
Regardless, when these clubs go at it again in Salt Lake next Tuesday, it will be Columbus that's the favorite, something that was unimaginable at the start of this match.
2. The show didn't go on
If you spent the winter watching the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga and German Bundesliga, this game will have come as a shock to the system. On an unplayable field -- seriously, was there no field in a 100-mile radius that didn't play like a lumpy patch of concrete? -- the few that came out to watch saw a game low on pace, imagination, skill and execution. Although it was at times entertaining, the match had a distinct preseason feel. Early preseason. First day of preseason, really. If not a few days before that. This game demonstrated that the MLS and CCL's schedule are incompatible. Because the level of play in tournaments such as these ought to improve as they progress, not recede.
3. This is a worthwhile tournament
The CONCACAF Champions League tends to be alternately mocked and ignored. But despite of the lack of skilled play Tuesday, it is a tournament worth paying attention to. Many American soccer fans clamor for a league that mirrors European football, yet they overlook tournaments such as the U.S. Open Cup and the CCL. This doesn't make sense, since domestic cup competitions and continental play are a huge part of European soccer. This tournament gives MLS fans a chance to see their teams take on opponents from all over North and Central America, and by winning it, it grants access to the FIFA World Club Cup, too. Potentially, that could pit an MLS team against a UEFA Champions League winner in a meaningful, competitive game.
Played since 1962 as the CONCACAF Champions Cup-- before the format was changed from a straight knockout to a group-plus-knockout system and renamed the CONCACAF Champions League in 2008 -- the tournament has been won by an American team only twice. Rather than a distraction from the MLS season that fans care little for, it should become the ultimate reward for success within MLS -- a chance to show your club isn't just the best in your country but on your continent.