Here we are once again. Another season, another North American El Clásico in the early weeks of the season with Team SoloMid and Counter Logic Gaming coming into the game atop of the table.
The most storied rivalry in North America between two of the most popular Western teams, the first match of the season between the two teams continually decides which of the two teams will exit one of the first rounds as the top team in the NA LCS.
While TSM have shown the ability to extend their early season success into the postseason, CLG are a team that routinely bursts out of the gate to one of the top spots in the league before slowing down as the postseason starts to come into focus.
Last season's initial battle between the two teams was another case of the two teams fighting for the top spot in NA. CLG, in the process of playing in their proclaimed "Golden Age", as they did in their campaigns, got off to a fast start against TSM before running out of steam in the second half of the game. TSM's brick wall play around objectives and team fighting gave them the edge in a game that appeared lost, CLG forcing fights they shouldn't have and falling to their nemesis in a match that was poised to make Counter Logic a legit contender in North America.
The loss to TSM near the halfway point of the season capsulized the rest of CLG's season, sputtering to a tiebreaker loss against C9 at the end of the season to miss a Top 2 spot in the league and a bye in the first round. After falling into the quarterfinals with their defeat to C9, their repeated playoff woes reoccurred, losing three straight to Team Liquid to get bounced from the postseason without a single win.
TSM grabbed the top spot in the regular season and didn't falter in the playoffs, beating Team Impulse in the semifinals 3-1 before knocking out Cloud9 for the second straight time in the NA LCS Grand Finals to pick up their back-to-back championship.
Fast forward to now, and we're back to where we were last season when CLG and TSM were two of the top teams in the league. CLG's Golden Age has became an Age of Faith, hoping that the move of Pobelter into the mid lane is the move needed to take them from a regular season dynamo to a legit postseason threat.
Team SoloMid are no strangers to success in both the regular season and postseason of LCS, housing three domestic titles and countless byes by grabbing one of the top two spots in the standings.
Their goal is as they've said all along: Worlds, and doing well when they get there. Mid-Season Invitational was a harsh taste of reality for TSM, their inflexible style and determination to stick with the play that won them LCS getting deconstructed by the top teams across the globe.
While CLG come into this El Clásico match with faith pushing them, TSM are motivated by pure redemption. They exited last season's NA LCS with a swagger of a true Worlds contender, coming off their second straight domestic campaign with a victory over C9, a team that terrorized them for a year straight before beating them in the Grand Finals of the 2014 Summer season.
TSM also secured an IEM world championship in-between their two LCS victories, looking to finally be at the level to fight with the best teams in the world by taking out CJ Entus, the Yoe Flash Wolves, and sweeping a rejuvenated Team WE in the finals.
This was TSM's presumed coming out party to the rest of the world, putting down the North American flag at a large international event and announcing that they were ready to stand toe to toe with the SKT's and EDG's of the world at Europe in the fall.
Then everything fell apart in Tallahassee.
Not enough diversity, teams played too fast and loose for TSM's rigid style, and the North American champions were embarrassed on home soil by only picking up a lone victory over the Wild Card representative, Turkey's Beşiktaş. The once dream of going to Worlds and fighting it out for the Summoner's Cup was dashed, TSM's one-dimensional play being picked apart and thrown back into the NA LCS with one more season before having a possible second shot at the powerhouses from the rest of the world at the biggest tournament of the year.
The match itself is not going to make or break the season for either team, depending on how the team deals with the loss. CLG took the defeat to TSM last season as more than just a single game between two top teams, the mispositioning and ill-conceived shot calls breaking their confidence in a game that they were one won team fight away from taking. A game that could have truly certified the Golden Age and helped their confidence towards the playoffs turned into something that set the course for a downturn in the second half of the season.
By the time their season was over, Link was on his way out in a disorderly fashion, Scarra was stepping down as head coach, and CLG were back where they started — a squad with potential and individual talent, but no strength in the playoffs and a knack for falling apart when the tension got too high.
CLG have started out the 2015 Summer season with the same fervor they broke out with last campaign, 3-0 in their first three games and punishing teams with their tight-knight, orderly way of playing.
Aphromoo has stepped up into being one of the biggest voices on the team when it comes to shot-calling with Link's departure, and CLG have reacted by taking control in the early game and rolling to comfortable victories off smart game calls, objective control, and safe play that has seen their new recruit, Pobelter, only die twice in the first three games of the season.
On the other side of the Clásico, TSM are still tinkering with how they want to play. Everyone knows by now how TSM win games in NA: focus on mid, get their ace Bjergsen rolling in the middle lane, and play around him with sturdy objective control and watch as he wrecks the other team by deleting their carries with the assistance of his teammates.
With the failure at MSI, TSM know they need to mix things up in the new season: WildTurtle needing to step up into a main carry role when needed if Bjergsen can't get rolling or if they feel the match-up in the bottom lane favors them over the mid. They've put a stronger emphasis on the top lane, protecting Dyrus and giving him a better chance to survive the early-game and be a main factor by 30 minutes without having died six times on the way.
It isn't overly obvious TSM are trying new things, but they're adjusting how they play in almost every game. No matter what happens, Bjergsen is always going to be the star and ace of the team, and he should. He's a world-class player and is one of the most reliable aces in the Western scene, and those don't casually grow on trees.
Teams have plucked young talent out of solo queue or from the amateur scene to try and find their own Bjergsen, but a vast majority of the time those players can't make the transition or simply end up as average players with little influence on the game.
While TSM do need to have a healthy balance of compositions and styles if they want a chance of facing the likes of SKT, EDG, and Fnatic at Worlds without getting knocked out, Bjergsen should not be hidden or put into a smaller role.
Your ace is your ace, and you die by their talent when everything is on the line. Just like how SKT fell with Faker at MSI, TSM will always go to Bjergsen when everything is on the line.
When the game is hyped up tomorrow as the second coming of the World Finals and that it means the difference between life and death, per usual with TSM vs. CLG, don't see it that way. These are two teams that while appear to be heading on course to the top four this season, are still figuring out how to play and to make themselves the best they can be when the postseason rolls around.
TSM want to break out new compositions, focus more on Turtle, and make sure by the time they see SKT or EDG again, they're ready to surprise them. For CLG, they look amazing so far and are undefeated, but none of that matters to them; everything they're doing is leading up to the final weeks of the season and the playoffs where they will be judged harshly by their critics.
Starting the season 10-0 with a win over TSM along the way won't matter if they fall in the final weeks and find themselves swept once more in the playoffs.
Instead of a match that will decide North America, this is a litmus test for both teams. The loser, unlike last season, should see their loss as a learning experience to build into the latter half of the season. The winner should take pride in their win and a top two place in the standings, but know there is a lot more work to be done if they want to reach their ultimate goal.
Faith or Redemption. When the season comes to an end, which one will have come out on top?
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions. You can follow him on Twitter.