After a two-month wait— that truly felt much longer— Major League Soccer is back.
While the regular season doesn’t begin until this weekend, five MLS clubs began their CONCACAF Champions’ League journey after successful seasons in 2018.
Toronto earned their place as Canada Cup winners, Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo qualified as the last two US Open Cup winners, and Atlanta United qualified as the 2018 MLS Cup winners. Because Toronto, as 2017 MLS Cup champs, already qualified, the New York Red Bulls qualified as the best non-champion in MLS over the last two seasons.
CD Guastatoya 0-1 Houston Dynamo
The ageless wonder has struck again, as DaMarcus Beasley has all but cemented his spot with the US for the 2250 World Cup and beyond.
Houston largely controlled the ball in this game, finishing with 64% possession and out-shooting the hosts 6-3, including the only four balls on target. Houston central midfielder Juan Cabezas had a strong first half, and put a good ball on target before being forced off with an injury in the 69th minute.
Winger Romell Quioto later forced Guastatoya goalie Jose Calderon into another impressive save in the 83rd minute, as he tipped the Dynamo shot wide of the post. Off the ensuing corner, Beasley one-timed home a poor clearance, with a strike to the bottom right corner with his weaker right foot from about 20 yards out to give the visitors an all-important road goal heading back to Houston.
Houston keeper Joe Willis performed admirably in the few instances he was called upon, coming up with a massive save in the 77th minute to keep the match scoreless, diving to smother a Guastatoya shot from distance and prevent a rebound shot.
While Houston certainly would have liked to put more past Guastatoya, they will be satisfied with the advantage against a team that was determined to sit in a defensive formation and play physically, something the hosts did with vigor as they picked up fifteen fouls on the night.
CAI 4-0 Toronto FC
Tuesday night was not as kind to Toronto.
Despite holding 70% of possession, Toronto was thoroughly outplayed by the Panamanian side, getting outshot 13-7 and getting bossed all over the pitch. The game’s opening goal came from a bit of good play from the hosts, but also saw Toronto ball watching and giving too much space to their opponent, allowing a good cross to the box that was settled and finished in the bottom right corner.
Toronto responded well to conceding, testing Independiente’s keeper on several occasions over a period of sustained pressure, which culminated in a penalty attempt for Toronto, which newly-acquired Terrence Boyd sent over the bar. Independiente’s second goal came courtesy of Omar Browne, who sidestepped a lunging Laurent Ciman and fired into the top corner minutes into the second half. Four minutes later the hosts got their third, as Toronto’s high defensive line was beaten by pace, finishing with a tap-in by Romeesh Ivey.
Ivey exposed the high line again in the 78th to complete his brace and completing the lopsided score line. After the game, Toronto head coach Greg Vanney had some harsh criticism of his squad afterward, saying they were out-competed on all levels and that “everything was too slow, we lost too many balls between the lines and started to chase the game. Chasing a team that is this good in the counter attack is a dangerous game.”
Captain Michael Bradley echoed those thoughts after the game, noting that they “weren’t up for any part of (the game). That part is really disappointing.”
Atletico Pantoja 0-2 New York Red Bulls
Looking to rebound from the heartache of their loss to Guadalajara last year, New York came out with a solid game plan Wednesday night in the Dominican capital, taking hold of the game to the tune of 59% possession and a 17-6 shot advantage, forcing Pantoja’s Odalis Baez into seven saves on the night.
After a series of near misses, New York broke through late on in the first half, courtesy of an own goal in the 39th minute, forced by a rocket shot from Bradley Wright-Phillips, that deflected off of Baez and defender Jean Innocent, following a period of the ball being played around inside the Pantoja 18-yard box.
Daniel Royer doubled New York’s lead in the 67th minute, as he had time and space to settle and finish off a Kaku cross with a right-footed strike to the high center of the goal.
Kaku was particularly bright on the night, putting a good shot on frame in the 27th minute and playing Royer in on a great ball in the 30th that forced another decent save from Baez. New York will be hard done to not have more goals on the night, but can head home for the second leg satisfied with the result.
Sporting Kansas City 3-0 Toluca
From the opening whistle, Kansas City did their best to help the Blue Hell live up to its name, dominating all facets of the game, including a 63.8%- 36.2% advantage in possession as they launched thirteen shots against the two-time CONCACAF champions.
SKC had three good looks in the opening half hour, including a header just wide of the post by Krisztian Nemeth off a Johnny Russell cross. Peter Vermes’ men broke the deadlock in the 35th minute, as a beautiful long ball from Matt Besler over the top of the defense found the feet of Gerso Fernandes, who was able to control and lay off for Nemeth, who ripped a shot to the left side of goal.
Fernandes was critical for Kansas City on the night, as he nearly got his second assist in the 47th, cutting in from the left and finding Nemeth in the box, but the Hungarian’s spinning effort was just wide of the post. Fernandes added a goal just five minutes later, blasting a shot into the top netting following a loose ball in the box. Ilie Sanchez added to the host’s delight with a sublime strike in the 72nd minute, striking a half-volley from the edge of the 18-yard box into the top left corner following a poor clearance from Toluca.
Herediano 3-1 Atlanta United
The defending MLS Cup champions got off to a rocky start in their CONCACAF Champions League debut, finding themselves conceding early and often due to several defensive miscues.
Jose Ortiz got things started for Herediano in the 7th minute, intercepting an ill-advised headed back pass from Leandro Gonzalez Pirez to goalie Brad Guzan, and was able to chip the onrushing keeper for a 1-0 lead. Ortiz made his presence felt again in the 34th minute, delivering a great through ball that sent Randall Azofeifa one on one with Guzan. Azofeifa displayed great composure, faking a layoff pass before hammering his shot home to the near post to double the host’s lead.
Julian Gressel was able to pull one back for the visitors just before halftime, scoring on a deflected shot to make it 1-2. However, Gressel lost his man on a set piece on the other side of the halftime whistle, allowing Esteban Granados to head home Azofeifa’s cross and complete the 3-1 scoreline for the Costa Ricans.
New Atlanta coach Frank de Boer found the going difficult all night and attempted to turn the tide with second half substitutes Darlington Nagbe and Hector Villalba, and was almost rewarded when Villalba nearly got a late consolation goal in the third minute of stoppage time for Atlanta, hitting the post with a good strike from outside the box, but instead the Five Stripes will return home with lots of work to do.