Major League Soccer coaches grapple with a perplexing quandary when they confront CONCACAF Champions League fixtures. They enter the competition with comparably scant options at their disposal to cope with an increasingly demanding schedule, but they must stretch their squads to produce results on multiple fronts.
It isn't an easy conundrum to solve. Mexican sides struggle with the same issues despite their deeper rosters and larger budgets. As always, MLS outfits must do more with less. And how they deploy those resources can often reveal how seriously they take their foray into the region's most prestigious club competition.
Montreal , San Jose and Sporting Kansas City offered a glimpse into their mentalities as they embarked upon their Champions League journeys this week. One match from four does not necessarily chart a fixed course, but it does provide more of a glimpse into the thought processes of these managers than the platitudes dished out before the tournament commences.
The team selection ahead of the Impact's 1-0 victory over the Earthquakes at Stade Saputo proved particularly revealing. The outcome of Group 5 - barring some unexpected offering from Guatemalan debutantes Heredia and a setback in Central America for either side - hinges on two games: this opening affair in Montreal and the return match at Buck Shaw Stadium on Sept. 17.
Montreal's starting XI reflected its desperation to claim the advantage heading into that potential return leg. Impact manager Marco Schällibaum named most of his regulars - Patrice Bernier featured from the bench, Felipe missed out - in his lineup and opted to hand recent Designated Player signing Hernán Bernardello his full debut in a further attempt to solidify the efforts on the evening.
Those decisions contrasted starkly with the team chosen by interim Earthquakes boss Mark Watson heading into the affair. The visitors included a central midfielder in central defense (Brad Ring), versatile left back in midfield (Ramiro Corrales) and a smattering of starters among the host of reserves elsewhere. Watson also left talismanic Chris Wondolowski on the bench until the final 20 minutes with one eye on the congested Western Conference playoff chase and the critical trip to Vancouver on Saturday.
On the merits of those choices and the relative strengths of the two teams, the Impact should have coasted to victory and placed one foot into the quarterfinals. The home side instead needed an early penalty save by Evan Bush on a tame Alan Gordon penalty to avoid falling behind and relied on a Hassoun Camara finish after 16 minutes to secure its narrow victory. The respectable defeat largely justified Watson's team selection (though he may have some qualms about plumping for Marvin Chávez after the Honduran winger departed with an injury after a rash Daniele Paponi tackle) and yet still placed the Impact in control of its quarterfinal destiny.
Sporting Kansas City boss Peter Vermes navigated between those two extremes when he selected his lineup for the 2-0 victory at Real Estelí on Wednesday night. The fixture against the Nicaraguan minnows presented some awkward hurdles in the buildup due to the travel considerations, but Estelí's poor track record in the competition and its recent return to league play suggested the match itself offered little threat.
Vermes blunted any hopes of a shock by turning out a blended outfit capable of securing the expected victory. He plumped for most of his rearguard (minus Matt Besler) and Uri Rosell in midfield. He trusted the likes of Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber to state their cases for more starting minutes with assured displays. And then he watched his players pile on the pressure, score twice through Dwyer and Ike Opara and start the long journey back to Kansas City with all three points in tow.
All three teams - plus imminent arrivals Houston and LA Galaxy , two sides noted for their successful use of rotation policy en route to the knockout stages of the competition last season - must continue to ponder how to employ their limited resources as the tournament unfolds. They will evaluate other results - Cartagines' impressive 4-2 victory at Isidro Metapan on Thursday might influence how the Galaxy approaches its CCL opener against the Costa Ricans on Aug. 20, for example - and weigh the benefits and the risks of naming particular players in the lineup.
No straightforward solutions exist in a world with limited squads and restrictive salary budgets. For every MLS entrant, it is now a matter of discerning priorities on several fronts, pursuing them in the best possible fashion and striving to meet those goals regardless of the complications and the criticisms that arise along the way.