By DAN KARELL
The gap might be shrinking between top MLS teams and top Mexican teams, but the harsh reality was on display yet again on Wednesday night that Mexico’s best are still the kings of the CONCACAF region.
Two Major League Soccer teams made it to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, but for the second straight year MLS teams were kept out of the final by their Mexican counterparts.
The Rayados secured a place in the final with a 1-0 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy on Wednesday night at the Estadio Tecnológico in Monterrey, Mexico. Aldo De Nigris played the villain for the Major League Soccer club once again, finishing a pass from midfielder Cesar Delgado with a strike through the legs of Galaxy goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini.
The two-time defending champs now face Santos Laguna in a rematch of last year’s Champions League final. Santos will host the first leg in Torreon on April 24th, with the return leg in Monterrey on May 1st.
The Galaxy’s night got off to a bad start before the match even started. Do-everything midfielder Mike Magee was scratched from the starting lineup due to leg soreness, throwing Michael Stevens in the starting lineup just minutes before the start of the match.
A surprise inclusion in the lineup was Landon Donovan, just two weeks after coming back to training with the Galaxy. Donovan played the entire match, but still is clearly coming back to match fitness. He had moments though when he showed the flashes of why he is arguably the greatest U.S. soccer player of all time.
In the 31st minute, the Galaxy were given their best opportunity of the match. A Donovan corner kick ended up sandwiched between two Rayados defenders. When the ball finally dropped, defender Omar Gonzalez was first to react, launching a shot at goal, but straight at the home goalkeeper Juan Ibarra. The ball was saved away, and just seconds later, a curling effort from Galaxy midfielder Juninho was clutched safely by Ibarra.
The MLS side did well to stem the tide of the expensive and talented Monterrey attack. But once the last five minutes of the second half rolled around, it was pretty much all Rayados going forward. The 4-2-4 being played by the home side kept the Galaxy wing backs busy all night, and finally towards the end of the match the Mexican side took advantage.
In the 81st minute, de Nigris ran unimpeded into space in the box, likely due to Galaxy manager Bruce Arena taking off one of his central defenders for a forward just seconds earlier. Cesar Delgado, who was played a through ball in the box, hit a pass backwards into the space occupied by de Nigris, and the Mexican forward finished through the legs of Cudicini, all but ending the tie.
Galaxy forward Robbie Keane, at the other end of the field, didn’t have his best evening. The Irish international let his emotions get the best of him at times and he failed to provide the kind of leadership and talent that his team needed. And though the Galaxy brought in three forwards for defenders in the final 30 minutes of the match, they failed to put the ball in the net.