Two MLS teams went into their CONCACAF Champions League matches on Wednesday facing must-win games and daunting circumstances, but that didn't stop the Los Angeles Galaxy or Colorado Rapids from delivering clutch victories in dramatic fashion.
The Galaxy looked doomed to disappointment, tied vs. Morelia with 90 minutes of regulation having already ticked off the clock. Then, with stoppage time fading away, Juninho stepped up to score a stunning game-winning goal at Home Depot Center to give Los Angeles a 2-1 victory and new life in their quest for a berth in the quarterfinals.
The ending was a sweet bit of poetic justice for the Galaxy, who watched questionable officiating cost them in a loss in Morelia that also came courtesy of a stoppage-time game-winning goal. This time around, however, it was the Galaxy conjuring the late magic.
The victory was made more impressive by the fact the Galaxy did it without stars David Beckham (suspended), Robbie Keane and Sean Franklin (injured). Bruce Arena's squad turned to lesser publicized standouts like Todd Dunivant and Mike Magee, two players enjoying career years and playing key roles in the Galaxy's dream season.
The Rapids faced even longer odds heading into Tuesday's trip to face Metapan. With the squad struggling badly in MLS play, the Rapids sent a reserve team to El Salvador with elimination likely if they produced anything short of a victory. The decision to field reserves looked like a surrendering of Colorado's Champions League place, but the Rapids responded with a 3-1 handling of the same Metapan side that gave the Rapids so much trouble earlier in the tournament.
The two clutch performances by the Galaxy and Rapids have helped fully revive the Champions League hopes of a group of MLS teams slumping badly in the previous two rounds. Now, instead of MLS facing the possibility of having just one or two teams advancing to the quarterfinals, all five MLS teams in the competition have either qualified (Seattle) or head into the final match day controlling their own destiny.
Not every MLS team enjoyed success in Wednesday Champions League action. FC Dallas' struggles in league play carried over to the Champions League, where the squad dropped a crazy 5-3 decision to Tauro FC in a match that saw three players sent off, including Fabian Castillo and Jair Benitez.
The defeat didn't really change much for Dallas. While a win or a draw against Tauro would have meant Dallas could have reached the second round even with a 1-0 loss to Toronto FC in the final group stage match, FC Dallas still heads into that match knowing a win or a draw against TFC at Pizza Hut Park on Oct. 18 sends them through to the quarterfinals.
Dallas would have been considered a runaway favorite to beat Toronto FC at home just a month ago, but now, with Dallas mired in a seven-match winless slump in all competitions, and with Castillo and Benitez suspended, Toronto FC will have to like their chances to knock off the Western Conference champions on Oct. 18.
The Galaxy and Rapids still have work to do to join the Seattle Sounders in the quarterfinals. Los Angeles can advance to the second round with a win in Honduras against winless Motagua, but can also advance if Morelia beats Alajuelense or if if the Galaxy and Alajuelense tie in their final group matches.
Colorado's task is tougher, but not impossible. The Rapids must beat Santos Laguna in Mexico on Oct. 19. That might seem like an impossible task considering how Santos destroyed the Rapids last week, 4-1, but Santos Laguna has already qualified for the quarterfinals and is likely to field a largely reserve side against the Rapids.
Colorado could also advance with a draw and a Metapan-Real Espana draw.
That means there's still work to be done for the Galaxy, Rapids and FC Dallas, but considering the ups and downs of group play, controlling their own destinies is a position they'll all gladly take.