Happy 2016, and welcome to another edition of the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League (CCL) quarterfinals!
Reviewing MLS results in the CCL is an exercise in depression. Though MLS results have steadily improved over time in the opening stages of the CCL, the end result is always the same: no championships since the format was changed in 2008. And lots and lots of Liga MX champions.
Historically, progressing out of the preliminary two-game qualifying stage (no longer used in CCL) was anything but guaranteed. The Galaxy lived this in 2010 with an embarrassing loss to the Puerto Rico Islanders. Plus, teams still goof up in the revamped group stage. But 2015 marked a year where 4 MLS teams (with apologies to the Vancouver Whitecaps who lost out to the Sounders) proceeded to the quarterfinals, each of them winning their group. Not only that, but all 4 teams used a majority of non-starters to get through to the next round, beating their non-Liga MX counterparts from elsewhere in the region. That's a sign of improvement.
Whether or not MLS can ultimately have a CCL champion is up for debate. The quarterfinals currently start during MLS's pre-season, the payrolls of MLS and Liga MX are markedly different, and there's the mental block of MLS having very few wins in Mexico. But we can take a look at historical results to see if patterns emerge, and determine what those patterns tell the LA Galaxy to prep for February's quarterfinal game against Santos Laguna.
For context, 28 two-game legs have been played between MLS and Liga MX teams in the current incarnation of CCL for a total of 56 games. Six of those legs involved Santos Laguna.
SCORE, AND SCORE LOTS
The first thing that stands out in reviewing history is the scoring. Lots and lots of goals. In the 28 two-game legs played between MLS and Liga MX, the average number of total goals scored over the two games is 6. These aren't 1-0 bunker ball games that are eked out between defensive sides. Liga MX isn't known to be the most defensive of leagues, and MLS sides can get overwhelmed. That leads to multi-goal games. Offense is king.
The goals are also not always one-sided. Of the 28 legs, 10 (36%) were blow outs with a goal difference of 3+ in favor of the Liga MX side. However, 12 legs (43%) were determined by 1 goal or fewer (aka, the away goal rule).
MLS teams aren't being foiled by Liga MX defenses. Of the 28 legs, only 3 include a scenario where an MLS side doesn't score a single goal, and those happened way back in 2008 and 2009.
BEWARE THE AWAY GAME
Where MLS loses the series is the away game in Mexico. And because of seeding, these away games are typically the second game played. MLS won for the first time in Mexico in 2011 - both FC Dallas and Seattle went to Mexico and came away with victories against UNAM and Monterrey respectively. Both were 1-0 victories, but involved major goalkeeping and defensive heroics. These are anomalies rather than the rule.
The average GD for the MLS home game against a Liga MX side is -0.4. MLS still needs to do a better job winning at home, but the games are generally close. This is partially due to a Liga MX side that knows it has the advantage when it returns home. The Liga MX team plays defensive and forces the MLS team to take the game to them; in the meantime taking advantage of miscues, counter attacks, or going full bore attack if things go pear shaped.
The MLS away game in Mexico is another story. The average GD for this game for the MLS side is -1.6. The Liga MX side attacks and MLS teams hold on for dear life. In 11 out of 28 away games the MLS side doesn't score once. In 20 out of 28 games (the vast majority) they score 0 or 1 goal. If the MLS team isn't on the front foot after the home game, it's "mission accomplished" for the Liga MX team.
SANTOS LAGUNA ARE WINNERS
Taking a look at Santos Laguna specifically, they have never lost in aggregate against a MLS side in their 6 two-game legs. Columbus did have a 1-1 two-leg tie against them way back in 2010, but that's it. Santos Laguna also owns 3 two-leg blowouts against Colorado, Seattle and TFC (all in the 2011-2012 CCL edition). The Galaxy has never before faced Santos Laguna in CCL. The last CCL games Santos Laguna played in 2013 were not blowouts, but were still wins for the Liga MX side. They defeated Houston 3-1 in the quarterfinals, and Seattle 2-1 in the semifinals after keeping the Sounders scoreless in Seattle.
Santos Laguna have had a potent offense. That said, this year they sit in 15th in the Liga MX table, with only three teams under them. They appear vulnerable defensively. However, they pounded Saprissa 6-1 in their final game of the CCL group stage to take the group and continue on.
WHAT TO TAKE AWAY?
Bruce Arena has to prep his team to play an aggressive offense, which can be counter to his defensive orientation. With all of LA's changes so far in the off season, trying to play defensive with a back four that is missing Omar Gonzalez, may include a new fullback, and will have a new goalkeeper, is a recipe for disaster. Arena has to own that the games are likely to be high scoring and put an emphasis on creativity and chance creation, in particular in the home game. Waiting to play defensive and bunker in the away game has led to loss after loss for MLS. Arena needs to recognize that scoring in Mexico can happen, and will be necessary to continue on.
Odds dictate that the Galaxy (and most, if not all, of the MLS teams), will not progress to the semi-finals. In order to have a shot, LA needs to unleash Giovani Dos Santos and Robbie Keane, and pray that 2014 Gyasi Zardes shows up.
Based on history, if the Galaxy don't have a goal difference of +2 or more from the home game, we're toast.