Champions League Preview: 2011-12 Group Stage, Matchday 6
Posted on October 18, 2011 3:32 am
Back when this competition took a World Cup hiatus at the end of September, only two teams had assured themselves of advancing onto the quarterfinals, while no fewer than 12 still had realistic hopes of joining them. Since then, the clubs still involved in this season’s CONCACAF Champions League have tended to domestic affairs, with only Motagua in serious danger of missing out on their league’s playoffs. Well, Toronto FC did fail to reach Major League Soccer’s postseason yet again; more importantly for our purposes, their woeful haul of 33 points in as many games is still enough to guarantee them the top seed in next year’s Canadian Championship, by virtue of finishing ahead of the Vancouver Whitecaps. But just like the Canadians, all the teams still in with a shout have one more group-stage fixture to solve away, one more opportunity to justify their costly investment in CCL play over the last three months by keeping their own World Cup dreams alive beyond 2011.
Here is the schedule for this week’s crucial matches, with the group and home team listed first (all times EST).
Tuesday, October 18:
A – Monarcas Morelia (MEX) vs. LD Alajuelense (CRC), 8:00 p.m.
C – FC Dallas (USA) vs. Toronto FC (CAN), 8:00 p.m.
D – Seattle Sounders (USA) vs. CF Monterrey (MEX), 10:00 p.m.
Wednesday, October 19:
B – Santos Laguna (MEX) vs. Colorado Rapids (USA), 8:00 p.m.
C – Pumas UNAM (MEX) vs. Tauro (PAN), 10:00 p.m.
D – Herediano (CRC) vs. Comunicaciones (GUA), 10:00 p.m.
Thursday, October 20:
B – Isidro Metapán (SLV) vs. Real España (HON), 8:00 p.m.
A – Motagua (HON) vs. LA Galaxy (USA), 10:00 p.m.
Fortunately, CONCACAF has gone through the trouble of explaining what each surviving team needs in order to move on to the knockout round. The only correction I would make is that Santos Laguna could still finish second in Group B, although that would require losing by four at home to the Colorado Rapids. Actually, check that: I would also like to echo my comments from Matchday 3 and ask why the last games in each respective group are not played at the same time. Simultaneous kickoffs are not a perfect safeguard against collusion (see: Italian complaints about Euro 2004), but they do prevent teams from “taking the foot off the pedal” if and when earlier results fall their way, or conversely having to sit and watch as their fate is decided elsewhere.
For instance, Alajuelense and Monterrey find themselves in a similar position. Both face difficult away matches in which a defeat would leave them at the mercy of Motagua and Herediano, respectively – two teams with nothing left to play for, since they have already been eliminated. The Rapids have less room for error: only a win in Mexico will assure Colorado of a spot in the quarterfinals, while any other result will force them to watch Isidro Metapan’s match with Real Espana through the fingers, knowing that only a draw between the Central Americans would see them through. The defending MLS Champions may not even find out their fate on Thursday, if the tropical rains that shut down the Salvadoran league over the weekend continue to wreak havoc in the country.
At least in each of the above cases, one can argue that whichever teams get knocked out will have deserved it for failing to take care of business in their own matches. But this week’s most high-stakes encounter is a shining example of why these games should be played simultaneously (even if the status quo benefits TV networks and fans that want to catch as many games as possible).
MATCH OF THE ROUND
There are two kinds of matches for which I am an unabashed sucker: derbies and “zero-sum” games. This all-MLS showdown clearly falls in the latter category, as there is no combination of results that could see both into the quarterfinals. A draw between the two would eliminate Toronto FC outright, while FC Dallas would depend on whichever team Pumas decide to line up against Tauro denying a first-ever win for a Panamanian side in Mexico. A win for either, however, would guarantee them a high-profile quarterfinal series to kick off their 2012 season – no small prize for the Canadians, considering what happened the last time a team from the Great White North made it that far.
Furthermore, both sides could reasonably claim to be the favorites in Tuesday night’s match. FC Dallas have never lost to Toronto at home, can count on the services of rising US national-team player Brek Shea, and actually will be participating in the MLS playoffs this year. That last point also plays into Toronto’s favor, though, given that Dallas also need a result from their weekend match against the San Jose Earthquakes (i.e. better than what Real Salt Lake achieves against Portland) if they want to get third place in the league, avoid the wild-card round and be the first to catch a hand-me-down spot in next season’s CCL if LA or Seattle make the MLS Cup Final. For Toronto, in the words of Kenny Loggins, this is it: a win in their last meaningful game of 2011 would signify the greatest achievement in the club’s short history. And they will have almost all of their starters available, save Richard Eckersley and Eric Avila, while FC Dallas will have to make do without the suspended Jair Benitez and Fabian Castillo.
For FC Dallas in particular, as I mentioned before, the fact that Pumas-Tauro will take place a day after this game is nothing short of cruel. A victory does not guarantee them first place in the group, because Pumas could still win on Wednesday. And a tie does not guarantee them advancement, because Tauro could still win on Wednesday. Unfortunately, the Hoops will just have to put themselves in the best possible position and see where the chips fall. If nothing else, excitement is guaranteed for the neutrals.