Champions League 2011-12: Matchday 6 Review

Posted on October 23, 2011 2:54 am

The group stage of this seasons’ CONCACAF Champions League came to a close last Thursday, and I am still licking my wounds: I actually did worse with my predictions for this round ( 4 of 8 ) than for the prelims ( 5 of 8 ), and I only got half of them right because Mexican clubs are money. Speaking of which, a number of people criticized my geo-fixing proposal as deliberately targeting Mexican teams by forcing them to eliminate each other. To which I reply: were my proposal currently in force, the Mexican quarterfinalists would be completely unaffected. Morelia will have to face off against a domestic opponent in any case; while Santos Laguna, Pumas and Monterrey cannot be set up against each other in the next round, since all three won their groups. Rather, applying geo-fixing would have produced only two effects: setting up an automatic LA Galaxy-Seattle Sounders quarterfinal, and placing it on the opposite side of the bracket from Morelia’s all-Mexican tie.

But let’s focus on what is, starting with the fact that the LA Galaxy won Group A. Or did they? The Mexican Football Federation* and FIFA say no, while the Galaxy and CONCACAF say yes. The latter two are correct in stating that the LA Galaxy won the tiebreaker** over Morelia and Alajuelense on goal difference in the games between the three sides. But CONCACAF is to blame for the confusion: the “Standings” tab at the bottom left of the CCL’s official website still has Morelia above the Galaxy. Frankly, it is well past time that whoever manages that page update it; but given that Alajuelense and the Colorado Rapids still don’t have icons next to their names, my hopes aren’t high.

Nevertheless, Morelia did survive Group A. That all four Mexican teams made it to the quarterfinals is par for the course; but “Liga” missing out on the next round can be chalked up to what is known in legal terms as an “Act of God” – no, not the fact that they are the first-ever team with 12 points to get eliminated. If you look at the six games that took place between Alajuelense, the Galaxy and Morelia, the one that ultimately decided the fate of all three was LA’s 2-0 home win over the manudos. According to David Beckham, whose corner kick set up Omar Gonzalez for the first goal, neither of them were supposed to see the field in that match; but after Hurricane Irene forced a postponement of their marquee MLS encounter with the New York Red Bulls, Bruce Arena sent out all of his starters and got rewarded with what turned out to be a crucial victory.

The back-to-back Supporter’s Shield winners will be joined in the quarterfinals (as well as next year’s CCL) by the Seattle Sounders, who will be pleased at the remarkable improvement on their last continental campaign, even if Tuesday’s slip-up against Monterrey cost them first place in the group. But their advancement to the knockout round was downright predictable compared to the surprising accomplishment of a fellow MLS team, one that defied expectations (including my own) when it mattered most.

TEAM OF THE ROUND

Toronto FC (CAN)

They are indisputably the best club in the Great White North, with three straight Voyageurs’ Cup trophies to their name. But until this week, Toronto always found themselves hard-pressed to compete with MLS opposition. They have never made the league’s playoffs, and the only time they came close, New York shut the door in their face in the last game of the season (a rough 5-0 pounding). The CCL offered no respite: when they made the group stage last year, Real Salt Lake beat them 4-1 in the US and knocked them out with a 1-1 tie in Toronto; and this year, after inclement weather gave Aron Winter’s side a mulligan against FC Dallas, they wasted it by losing the replay.

The above illustrates the long odds that TFC faced down in Texas on Tuesday. The Canadians, however, simply threw the form book out the window by attacking an uninspired FC Dallas for 90 minutes. Danny Koevermans put them ahead in the first half, but Joao Plata stole the show in the second by burying Dallas with a brace – remember, this is the same Plata that everyone in MLS passed up because of his size. Full credit to Paul Mariner for picking the diminutive Ecuadorian, whose first year in Toronto only produced a Canadian Championship (of which he was the MVP) and a first-ever appearance in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. For their sake, I hope there is a Year Two (Plata is on loan from LDU Quito).

The current discussions over where to play the home leg of their quarterfinal conjures up images of the Montreal Impact facing Santos Laguna in front of a sold-out Olympic Stadium. But while Toronto follows a fellow Canadian club’s footsteps, another quarterfinalist made national history with their most successful campaign in the CCL era.

COUNTRY OF THE ROUND

El Salvador

Even after the pummeling they received in Mexico, Isidro Metapan had to feel good about their chances of moving on. After four games they occupied second place in Group B, and their remaining fixtures would take place at the familiar surroundings of the Estadio Jorge Calero Suarez. That advantage soured quickly, though, when they lost to a team of scrubs claiming to represent the Colorado Rapids (head coach Gary Smith was unavailable to confirm).

Fortunately for them, Santos Laguna offered a second bite at the cherry when they beat the Colorado Rapids on Wednesday. Mind you, Metapan’s opponents Real Espana also needed just a win to move on; and a draw between the two would have allowed the defending MLS champions to advance at their mutual expense.

I count myself unfortunate to have missed this game (due to a nighttime class). A scoreless first half gave way to 45+ minutes that will go down in the history of Salvadoran football: Metapan forward Paolo Suarez opened the scoring, Real Espana drew level, Metapan scored again off of a beautifully-taken free kick, Paolo Suarez bundled home his second to seal the game, and the Hondurans scored near the end of injury time to make the vociferous home crowd sweat out the last few moments. Just imagine what this achievement means for the metapanecos: in March of next year, either the LA Galaxy (even if Beckham decides not to return, World Cup veterans Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane would make the trip) or one of the most recent champions of Mexico will play in their cozy neighborhood stadium, in front of an international audience.

Metapan’s maiden appearance in the CCL quarterfinals (as the only Central American team still around this season) tastes doubly sweet for El Salvador. In the first two years of the current format, FESFUT held an automatic spot in the group stage; and while Isidro Metapan failed to get that far in 2008, Luis Angel Firpo acquitted themselves well, only getting edged out by the Houston Dynamo in the last game of the group. But 2009 brought about a cataclismic series of events for the Salvadorans: Luis Angel Firpo lost on penalties to DC United in the prelims, Isidro Metapan got crushed in the group stage with five straight shutout losses (they only slightly saved face by dragging Houston down with them), and Panama’s Arabe Unido ended up making it all the way to the quarterfinals. After that, CONCACAF decided to alter the tournament a year ahead of schedule, stripping El Salvador of its automatic spot in the group stage in favor of Panama.

Fast-forward to the present: in the last two years, not a single Panamanian team has survived the preliminary round; and while Tauro hardly embarrassed themselves this year, Arabe Unido crashed out of the 2010-11 edition with five losses (and a sullied reputation to boot). No one knows when (or if) CONCACAF is planning on making further changes to the CCL, mainly because we still have yet to figure out who is actually in charge. But El Salvador certainly has sufficient evidence to lobby for getting its automatic spot back.

As for the Colorado Rapids, although they must suffer the ignominy of being the first MLS Cup winner to fail to reach the quarterfinals, one is hard-pressed to lay into them for what happened this week. They faced the always-tough challenge of getting a result on the road in CONCACAF; and Alajuelense, Real Espana, Tauro and Comunicaciones succumbed to the same fate under the same circumstances. In fact, there was only one team that faced a clinching situation at home and blew it. Step right up…

GOAT OF THE ROUND

FC Dallas (USA)

Just in case you forgot, they were my Team of the Round for Matchday 1. That they ended up here is a reflection of just how badly they tanked on the continental stage in the last two months. September was particularly brutal, with a home loss to Pumas sandwiched by a tie and a loss against Tauro – the first time since 2008 that any US (or MLS) club has lost a two-game series with Panamanian opposition, whether in the prelims or in the group stage. But even if Schellas Hyndman’s team were running on fumes after a three-front campaign (MLS, CCL and the US Open Cup) sapped their energy, all they had to do was beat Toronto FC. A team that had won all of four away games in the entire year, only one of which came against an MLS opponent.

If history fell in their favor, the Texans hardly showed it. They fizzled out on the field, creating precious few chances against the Canadians; and what dangerous free kicks they did have ended up with Jason Hernandez or Ricardo Villar blasting the shot into TFC’s wall. Brek Shea got uncharacteristically shut down, although experiencing such a hectic year (with US national-team friendlies added to FC Dallas’s loaded schedule) has visibly drained him; and with Fabian Castillo and Jair Benitez suspended, Hyndman had no more cards to play once Joao Plata sentenced them to an embarrassing exit.

Just like that, the second half of FC Dallas’s CCL run came to a fitting end: after four straight wins, three of which came on the road (including the much-lauded first-ever win for an MLS team in Mexico), the Hoops only got one point out of their last four matches, failing to win a single home game on their way out. One wonders if even Joseph could have predicted such a turn in fortune. As it is, they will have to watch along with everyone else as the following teams continue to fight for the continental trophy and a spot in the Club World Cup (pots to be used for the knockout-round draw):

Pot A

LA Galaxy (USA)
Santos Laguna (MEX)
Pumas UNAM (MEX)
CF Monterrey (MEX)

Pot B

Monarcas Morelia (MEX)
Isidro Metapán (SLV)
Toronto FC (CAN)
Seattle Sounders (USA)

* Thanks to BigSoccer member El Burro for the link.

** For anyone who still has questions about the tiebreaker, please see the column on the right of this article from La Nación of Costa Rica.

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