By Brian Dunseth
It took just a glance at the starting lineups for the first legs of the Preliminary Round of the CONCACAF Champions League to recognize that virtually every team in the early knockout round was not just taking the tournament "seriously", but coaching staffs were rolling out a majority of first-choice sides in hopes of giving themselves a buffer heading into the second leg.
While we've become used to seeing a mix-and-match starting list employed early in the competition from the Mexican clubs (especially if said team's first leg is on the road), Major League Soccer's FC Dallas, Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders all put out first-choice starting lineups with the exception of a few longer-term injury layoffs.
Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders were good examples.
Toronto was forced to go through the early knockout round for the third consecutive season following another championship run in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship.
And playing off its experience from the 3-2 aggregate win over Motagua in the same phase of the competition last season, head coach Aron Winter left only Julian de Guzman (who played only once in the past month) and goalkeeper Stefan Frei (hand injury) out of his starting lineup at home against Nicaragua's Real Esteli.
It was a nod to the club's lesson learned two years ago when Toronto FC was eliminated in the same stage at the hands of the Puerto Rico Islanders. And De Guzman against Esteli in the second half.
Considering Toronto is last in MLS' Eastern Conference, one might have forgiven Winter for putting together a patchwork side.
Although TFC were on the right side of the 2-1 win at BMO Field Wednesday night, Winter might find himself ruing the missed opportunities, especially since the Canadian side gave up an awful goal against the run of play.
With the Champions League consisting of essentially three phases, with the first and last being home-and-away knockouts - where road goals are the first tiebreaker, we've learned that a goal like Toronto FC gave up could be the difference between playing in the Group Stage and watching it on TV.
While the result in Panama City didn't favor the visiting Seattle Sounders, head coach Sigi Schmid left only sometimes starter Alvaro Fernandez on the bench for their first leg against San Francisco.
Much like Toronto FC, Seattle's maiden voyage into the Group Stage proved to be more than the team could handle, winning just once -- a 2-0 result at home against Marathon.
Now Seattle heads home to its comfy confines at CenturyLink Field, where its form on the artificial surface has enabled it to accrue the third-best record in MLS. Much like the first leg, will San Francisco's lack of possession this time around allow the same goal scoring opportunities in the final third that Seattle's offense enjoyed during the first leg?
Fredy Montero and the rest of the Sounders offense already know they have to score goals coming into the second leg down 0-1, but can San Francisco captain Roberto Brown capitalize on another mistake and get the visitors an all important road goal?
We'll find out next week.