Liquid's performance at MSI is another wake-up call for North America

Jake "Xmithie" Puchero packs up his belongings on stage during the Mid-Season Invitational. Provided by Riot Games

League of Legends coaches Jang "Cain" Nu-ri and Kang "Dodo" Jun-hyeok appeared backstage in the bottom left of the screen as Team Liquid killed off the Flash Wolves' two nexus turrets. Standing side-by-side, their solemn faces looked more appropriate for a Catholic mass than a decisive victory over the team that dictated the 2018 Mid-Season Invitational meta and drafts.

It certainly did not match the excited voices of Riot's casters Andy "Vedius" Day, Trevor "Quickshot" Henry and Sam "Kobe" Hartman-Kenzler.

"Doublelift is a monster as he secures a triple kill for Liquid!" Vedius shouted. "And that looks like the game!"

"Team Liquid keep their hopes at semifinals alive!" Quickshot yelled.

"Four victories for Team Liquid and they're not even done with the day!" Kobe's love of the North American League Championship Series -- the league he casts in the regular season -- combined with hoarse enthusiasm punctuated the cast. He was allowed to be excited and happy in the moment.

Cain and Dodo knew that there was still work to be done -- and Team Liquid would need a bit of luck.

Team Liquid AD Carry Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng hugged his support, Kim "Olleh" Joo-sung. Olleh was wearing substitute Joseph "Joey" Haslemann's jersey. Just days before, Olleh had requested to step down for a game during Liquid's abysmal 0-4 start to the group stage. For that one game against the Flash Wolves, Joey started at Olleh's behest.

In a final tiebreaker, Fnatic put a stop to Team Liquid's rise in the waning moments of the MSI group stage. Despite the team's poor start, Liquid was able to salvage their appearance somewhat with a late win streak and signs of in-game improvement.

Compared to the clamor in October 2017 following Team SoloMid's failure to escape the World Championship group stages for the second straight year, the fan reaction to Team Liquid at MSI was warm and loving. Mere days after Olleh was raked over the coals for swapping out while struggling with anxiety, the North American fandom was relatively accepting. Team Liquid had tried their best and came as close as possible to making the semifinals without actually playing in them. Yet, this team's first performance internationally remains an awkward footnote in the first split of franchises in the NA LCS.

The first year of franchising brought some good to the competitive landscape within North America as a region. New teams like Clutch Gaming and 100 Thieves did well in the playoffs, especially 100T, who made it to the 2018 NA LCS Spring finals in Miami. This opened a bit further for Echo Fox to perform well with a new lineup centered around top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon and jungler Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett. For the first time since its inaugural split in 2013, there were two new teams facing off in the NA LCS finals. TSM and Cloud9, who had perennial ownership of those finals spots, fell in the quarterfinals. The only other remaining organization with a finals pedigree, Counter Logic Gaming, didn't even make playoffs.

Team Liquid benefitted from this newfound parity, which allowed the team to improve on a few issues that tripped it up mid-split before making a strong playoff run. The team only dropped one game in its semifinal match against Echo Fox throughout the 2018 NA LCS Spring playoffs. With the European League Championship Series in an odd state of flux -- a steady stream of talent siphoned to NA, and one year behind in franchising -- and Fnatic starting top lane rookie Gabriël "Bwipo" Rau over the injured Paul "sOAZ" Boyer, this was seemingly Team Liquid and NA's time. Until it wasn't.

Returning to NA without a bid to the semifinals fell short of expectations. After the rough start and focus on split-push compositions with Jhin and Ryze that the team failed to execute, Team Liquid adjusted. Although the draft wasn't the main problem, Team Liquid placed Eugene "Pobelter" Park on Malzahar to aid in controlling mid, and gave Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong tankier picks like Shen, Ornn and Cho'Gath, flexing the team's draft options to compositions that were simpler to execute. Team Liquid also began focusing more on the team's side lanes, slowly adjusting when to split and when to group. It didn't solve all of Team Liquid's problems, but the team was learning. Going into the summer split, the challenge for Team Liquid will be to take what they did learn at MSI and continue to improve in a region that didn't punish the team for its mistakes previously.

This isn't the apex of this roster's strength, but Team Liquid is now in the fine-tuning stage of this lineup. Progress will be marked in smaller, more frustrating increments. There's also the question of whether trust between Olleh and the rest of Team Liquid can be repaired, which is something only the team can decide internally. Other rosters -- C9, CLG, TSM, 100T and Clutch -- will likely come into their own this summer, making Team Liquid's job more difficult. If TL and NA want to improve as a team and as a region, sticking with the small improvements TL showed in the later days of the group stage will be crucial. If they don't, North America will once again struggle come the 2018 World Championship.