By Brian Dunseth
Away goals - they're a staple of knockout round soccer and could be the critical deciding factor of who moves on to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals.
With the same exact two-leg format being used as during the Preliminary Round, this past week's first-leg quarterfinals produced a couple of surprises in terms of who won, and -- most importantly -- who scored "goals on the road."
The Champions League resumed after a four-month break Tuesday night, with Morelia taking on defending champion Monterrey at Estadio Morelos. With both teams putting out near first choice starting 11s, it was Monterrey dominating possession and chances throughout the night. And it was Humberto "Chupete" Suazo leading the way, finding the back of the net twice in a 3-1 win to head home to Estadio Tecnologico in Monterrey with not just a victory, but a significant tiebreaker advantage.
Wednesday night saw all three remaining MLS teams in action, starting with the Toronto FC hosting the LA Galaxy indoors at the Rogers Centre to avoid Canadian weather issues in March. With David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan all set for the starting lineup, over 47,000 fans were on hand to see Aron Winter's side play its "most important match in club history."
Things started incredibly well for Toronto. Both Ryan Johnson and rookie Luis Silva (the fourth overall pick in MLS' 2012 draft and making his first pro start) getting goals in the first 17 minutes.
Mike Magee would pull one back for the Galaxy before halftime, but it would be the ongoing inability of Toronto to close out big matches that ultimately doomed it. Landon Donovan equalized in the 89th minute following a David Beckham corner and subsequent scramble inside the six yard box.
Wednesday's other game had the Seattle Sounders at home against Mexico's Santos Laguna, led by former MLSer Herculez Gomez and coming off a 5-2 Clausura win against San Luis. While pre-game hype was dominated by Gomez's comments about contract negotiations he had with Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid when the two were with the Galaxy, and what role newly acquired former U.S. international Eddie Johnson would play for Seattle, it was little used David Estrada that started things at CenturyLink Field.
Gomez would level in the second half with a fantastic individual goal in the 61st minute for Santos, but it was Seattle midfielder Brad Evans putting the home side up just two minutes later by heading home Mauro Rosales' free kick that propelled Seattle to a 2-1 win in front of 23,000.
The quarterfinals concluded Thursday in El Salvador, with Isidro Metapan -- who beat the Puerto Rico Islanders on the notorious away goals in July to reach the Group Stage -- at home against Pumas UNAM. While Pumas fielded a mixture of first team and reserves, Metapan scoring leader Lester Blanco took charge, scoring with two goals in front of 4,131 at Estadio Jorge Calero Suarez to beat a Mexican team for the second time this season.
With the first-leg results in the books and the deciders next week, what should be our focus as fans? Look no further than those "away goals" and how the individual teams approach these matches. Will it be the free-flowing, attack-minded lineups going up against teams lining up with defensive shells to protect their leads?
One recent result to keep in mind: the second leg last year's Champions League final in Salt Lake City. Real Salt Lake achieved an incredible 2-2 result in Monterrey in the first leg (including two away goals) and needed to win outright, or merely draw 0-0 or 1-1 to claim the title. One mistake equaled one goal, and Monterrey not only won the second leg match 1-0, but was celebrating on the podium with its ticket booked to the Club World Cup.