GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- Even the usually enthusiastic Carlos Salcido couldn't muster much positivity in explaining Chivas de Guadalajara's 3-0 loss on Wednesday to AC Milan in Houston.
"On paper, it was an agreeable game against a great team like Milan," the 34-year-old told the club's official website afterwards. "The reality is that it wasn't the best match to take advantage of."
The pitch was a disaster, with Milan coach Filippo Inzaghi and Chivas manager Carlos Bustos both unhappy and admitting that the game was close to being called off beforehand.
In the stands, fewer than 15,000 turned up in NRG Stadium, making for an event that stood in stark contrast to the unbridled success of other teams' successful mini-tours this summer in the United States, a country that has basked in post-World Cup soccer fever.
While promotion in the U.S. and taking advantage of the fact that Chivas is -- at least historically and within the confines of the Mexican game -- a big club, there are some keys that can be taken from the two recent games (the first of which was a 1-1 draw against Bayern Munich in New Jersey on July 31) north of the border.
For Bustos and the players, the break was an opportunity to come together after two games of the Liga MX Apertura 2014 and work on aspects of the team that need improving. Not many leagues in the world would allow one of their teams to jet off mid-season to play friendlies, postponing fixtures in both the league and cup to accommodate them. Let's be honest, if minnows Jaguares de Chiapas had asked for a mid-season break to play friendlies, it is difficult to believe the Liga MX would have accepted.
The trip gave Bustos time to work on the training field and against two top quality teams to iron out ongoing problems such as the lack of mobility going forward, partly linked to the loss of form and aging of Aldo de Nigris and Omar Bravo; on meshing his new-look 5-2-3 system, and having one more look at 22-year-old goalkeeper Antonio Rodriguez, who is under constant pressure for his spot from Luis Michel.
And to boot, all that came on the plush training pitches and relaxed environments in New Jersey and Houston, away from the pressure-cooker of Guadalajara and without points at stake.
But the underlying problem for Bustos and Chivas fans is that there wasn't any real improvement at all on Wednesday against Milan. Yes, the pitch made it difficult, but Milan seemed to play at half-pace and won with consummate ease. Bustos remained calm in the press conference following the game, instead focusing on the need to finish chances, especially early in the match.
"I always try to take into account that the first thing is to create the chances at goals," he said. "We are struggling a little in converting, but I fully trust that the team will find [its goal-scoring touch]."
Fifteen goals in 19 league games in 2014 suggests the problem goes beyond Bustos, who only took over in May, even if both of Guadalajara's Liga MX goals this season have come from Fernando Arce direct free-kicks. Looking ahead to Saturday's tricky away trip to Pachuca's Estadio Hidalgo, the same lingering issues are still apparent. And Chivas will always be without creative spark Angel Reyna.
Bustos is set to replace him with Carlos Fierro, a youngster with much promise but who has suffered from the constant changes in the coaching staff at the club and looks short of confidence.
This time, points are being played for and the opposition -- who have started poorly, but finished as runner-ups in the 2014 Clausura -- is quite capable of running riot if the mood takes them and will hope that Chivas suffer a post-tour hangover.
Young Mexicans like Jurgen Damm, Hirving Lozano, Erick Gutierrez and Rodolfo Pizarro are exactly the type of fast, daring and exciting players that Chivas would like to produce and looked in line to be doing a few years ago when the team reached the 2010 Copa Libertadores final. All that has changed with the introduction of solidity and experience and Saturday's match is the type where that has to shine through, as it did when Chivas defeated Pumas 1-0 last time out in the league.
America fans -- ever eager to make fun of their provincial rivals -- are calling this season Chivas' "farewell tour," as the possibility of relegation hangs over the Rebano Sagrado and the outside chance that road games this season may be the last in the first division for some time.
It may all be friendly banter, but it does re-emphasize that now that the U.S. tour is over, it's back to the grind for Chivas, with the focus on consistently picking up points to make the relegation threat a distant memory.