2011 in Review: 10 Best CCL Games of the Year, Part II

Posted on December 23, 2011 4:33 pm

In an average calendar year in our region, one CONCACAF Champions League ends in April and another begins in July. As a result, our champion is among the first teams to qualify for the Club World Cup, along with the O-League winner. It also means that if I want to choose CCL “games of the year”, I have to consider candidates across two different competitions. In Part II, we will look at the best that the current CCL has had to offer – although a couple of “honorable mentions” are in order, given the matches that were left out.

From the 2010-11 competition, Olimpia’s 2-1 loss to Saprissa and Monterrey’s 2-1 win over Cruz Azul could have certainly made the list without any controversy. As for the prelims in the 2011-12 edition, only Seattle’s overtime victory over San Francisco and Isidro Metapan’s fight for survival in Puerto Rico received consideration. Finally, I am sure that Major League Soccer fans will be unhappy about FC Dallas and Seattle’s groundbreaking triumphs in Mexico being left out; but as important as they were for the collective psyche of MLS, those games came too early to have a significant impact on how the respective groups turned out. With that said, here are the last five “Best CCL Games of the Year”.

Monarcas Morelia (MEX) 2-1 LA Galaxy (USA) – 11-12 Group A, Matchday 3

The Galaxy, indisputably the best MLS club in 2011, looked to erase the memories of an embarrassing Champions League debut last year, and in August they took care of business with back-to-back home victories over Motagua and Alajuelense. The next fixture for Bruce Arena’s team would take place in Mexico, although the aforementioned US club wins down there had rendered the trip much less daunting. Then again, they did have to face a Morelia side that needed all three points to maintain a realistic chance at winning the group; and Landon Donovan’s presence guaranteed the Americans a hostile reception at the Estadio Morelos.

While Donovan earned the most attention from those in attendance, though, his new teammate Robbie Keane stole the show. LA and Morelia traded blows in the first 45, but the game sparked to life in the second half when Donovan found Keane on the right side of the field in a counter attack. With one defender immediately in front of him, Keane slipped the ball to his opponent’s left while he ran around the right. The Irishman reunited with the ball a couple of steps later, just in time to shoot it over the advancing Federico Vilar and into the net. As incredible as the goal was, Keane topped it a few minutes later with an audacious chip from LA’s half that Vilar only barely managed to palm away for a corner kick.

Morelia responded with the same sort of resilience that would later save them in Matchday 6, continuing to create chances and leveling the score when Galaxy keeper Josh Saunders let a shot slip through his legs and in. A momentary lapse in concentration, though, allowed Robbie Keane to score in injury time…or so we thought. The assistant referee raised his flag for offside, the center ref disallowed the goal over the Galaxy’s protestations, Morelia won a corner kick and Miguel Sabah headed in the game winner.

I have a suspicion that the assistant referee only saw Robbie Keane when he tapped the ball in from an offside position and assumed that the Galaxy forward must have been there when the ball was initially kicked. Mind you, my refereeing experience is non-existent, but with the benefit of replay we all got to see just how badly this call was blown: Keane ran past a defender to get to the loose ball. With Vilar on his line, Keane was onside with a couple of yards to spare, and the Galaxy rightly felt aggrieved at having a potential victory wrested from their fingers.

Morelia made the most of a fortuitous situation; and when they had an opportunity to win the game, talismanic striker Miguel Sabah lost his defender in the box and headed in the late corner kick. The erroneous refereeing decision marred the ending, but overall this was exactly the kind of match that the now-defunct Superliga could not provide: an end-to-end encounter between clubs from the two biggest leagues in North America, in which the MLS team would have to prove its mettle away from the comfortable surroundings of home. If there were any remaining doubts about the Galaxy’s ability to compete in this tournament, the performance in Morelia silenced them emphatically.

Pumas UNAM (MEX) 4-0 Toronto FC (CAN) – 11-12 Group C, Matchday 3

In the first two editions of the CCL, Ricardo “Tuca” Ferreti made no secret of his preference for testing out Pumas’ youth players in international competition. As I am sure John Jagou would be quick to point out, this policy had its benefits; for instance, before the “Pikolin” Palacios twins became starters with the senior Pumas team, or Pablo Barrera made the 2010 World Cup squad and scored the game winner in the last Gold Cup Final, the three were featuring in CCL matches against the likes of Luis Angel Firpo and Marathón.

Current Pumas coach Guillermo Vasquez decided to employ a similar strategy in the current tournament, but the initial returns fell far short of expectations for one of the grandes of Mexican football. Pumas started their run in Group C by becoming the second Mexican club in history, and the first in 48 years, to lose a competitive match at home to an American team. They did manage to earn a point in their second fixture; but the fact that it came against a Tauro side reduced to 10 men for most of the game took the shine off of that accomplishment. Even worse, Tauro had the same points and goal differential as Pumas, but had scored one more goal, leaving the Mexicans at the bottom of Group C at the end of August.

Coach Vasquez initially insisted that the Pumas Morelos kids would still get to see playing time in the rest of their CCL fixtures; but the lineup he presented for their next match, at home against Toronto FC, betrayed a change of course. Dario Veron, Juan Francisco Palencia and Martin Bravo all found themselves in the starting lineup for the first time, with Javier Cortes (he of the slaloming game-winner in the 2011 Mexican Clausura Final) supporting them. Toronto’s Ryan Johnson did have a chance to open the score in the first twenty minutes, but otherwise Pumas ran over the Canadians. Bravo and co. simply abused TFC’s backline (featuring an out-of-step Andy Iro), and the Argentine himself pulled off a hat-trick, as the hosts raced to a 4-0 lead before the halftime whistle.

Now that the message of Pumas’ superiority had been successfully delivered, Vasquez pulled off Bravo and Palencia after the break. The only lingering question in the second half was if Pumas would reach la manita, but the fifth goal surprisingly never came. Nonetheless, Pumas’ CCL ambitions had been revived, and the universitarios continued by getting revenge on Dallas en route to winning the group.

CF Monterrey (MEX) 3-1 Comunicaciones (GUA), 11-12 Group D, Matchday 4

Monterrey, the defending champions of this competition and a couple of months removed from their debut in the Club World Cup, found themselves in a shocking situation after Matchday 3. The positive mood from their goalfest in Costa Rica was canceled out by their loss at home to the Seattle Sounders, and a second-straight defeat in Guatemala left them in danger of an early elimination. As the table stood, Seattle had 9 points, to Comunicaciones’ 6 and their 3; and a combination of another defeat to Comunicaciones with a Seattle draw or victory against the hopeless Herediano would condemn the rayados.

Understanding the gravity of the situation, Victor Manuel Vucetich sent his best available 11 onto the field, and they responded by earning a 2-0 lead with a few minutes left in the match. Then a sequence of events occurred that twice changed the outlook of Group D: first, a Comunicaciones free kick was cleared only as far as José del Aguila, who volleyed the ball past Jonathan Orozco, off the post and in. At this point, Comunicaciones temporarily took second place in the group: had the match ended 2-1, Comunicaciones and Monterrey would have been tied on 6 points, and in their head-to-head record they had the same number of points (3 each) and goal differential (0). The next criterion is away goals scored in head-to-head matches; thus, thanks to del Aguila’s strike, Comunicaciones would have held the tiebreaker over Monterrey in their remaining two matches.

I have no idea if any of this crossed Humberto Suazo’s mind, but when a Monterrey attack ended up with the ball headed out towards “Chupete”, the Chilean controlled it with his right foot and blasted it low to the far post. With that last goal, Monterrey regained the head-to-head advantage on goal differential, meaning that Comunicaciones would have to outperform them in their remaining fixtures in order to overtake them. The Mexicans took matters into their own hands, winning their last two games; and thanks to Seattle’s unexpected slip-up at home against Herediano, Monterrey managed to win the group after all.

FC Dallas (USA) 0-3 Toronto FC (CAN), 11-12 Group C, Matchday 6

Just in case I have not mentioned this before: I love zero-sum games. And as much as MLS partisans may have been displeased at the situation, FC Dallas and Toronto FC faced off on Matchday 6 knowing that each one could only advance at the other’s expense. History pointed to one clear beneficiary: Dallas had already beaten Toronto three times in 2011 (three-and-a-half, if you count the abandoned game in Toronto back in August), while the Canadians had only won one game south of the border over the entire MLS season.

On the other hand, the fact that Toronto still had a shot at overtaking Dallas points to the slump into which the Hoops had fallen: after winning four-straight CCL matches, including their first two group-stage fixtures on the road, Dallas earned all of one point from three matches in September. Their loss at home to Pumas left first place in Group C up for grabs, while their hilarious 3-5 defeat in Panama cost them their insurance policy of being able to move on with a one-goal loss against Toronto (as well as attackers Jair Benitez and Fabian Castillo). To make matters worse, Schellas Hyndman ran his starters into the ground with his failure to rotate the squad for Dallas’s three-front campaign (CCL, MLS and US Open Cup), with Brek Shea in particular a shell of his creative and adventurous self. And just for good measure, only a handful of fans showed up at Pizza Hut Park for arguably the most important match of the season, few enough that they were drowned out by the visiting TFC supporters.

Aron Winter understood that victory here would allow Toronto to finally equal the historic 2008-09 CCL run of their bitter rivals Montreal Impact, as well as paper over yet another disappointing year in MLS, so it surprised no one that Danny Koevermans, Torsten Frings, Julian de Guzman and Joao Plata all started. Toronto shook off the specter of past failures by confidently attacking Dallas from the start; and while the exhausted Americans created few chances and wasted them all, Plata continuously tormented Dallas’s defense. On one play, he received a long ball from de Guzman, dribbled to the goal line and pulled it back for Koevermans. The big Dutchman swung and failed to connect properly, but made no mistake when the ball fell back to him, putting Toronto 1-0 ahead. Plata then stole the show in the second half: he got himself free in the area, received a square ball from Ryan Johnson and shot it past Kevin Hartman for Toronto’s second. Later on, he stripped the ball from Jackson Gonçalves, dribbled to the edge of the area, lost a Dallas defender by pulling the ball back towards his right foot and beat Hartman again with a low shot to the goalie’s left. At 3-0 the game was well and truly sentenced; and at the final whistle Dallas’s players slumped at the realization that the perfect start to this tournament had been comprehensively wasted, while Toronto reveled in an unexpected triumph.

Isidro Metapán (SLV) 3-2 Real España (HON), 11-12 Group B, Matchday 6

Here I will exercise my one exception: as I mentioned in the review of Matchday 6, I had to miss this game because of a nighttime class. I regretted not watching it live even before it turned out to be a classic, mainly because of the implications that it held for almost everyone in the group. By the time the two Central American sides lined up at the Estadio Jorge “Calero” Suarez, Santos Laguna had already assured themselves of first place; as for the second available ticket to the knockout round, either Metapan or Espana could obtain it with a victory, while a tie would eliminate both teams in favor of the Colorado Rapids.

I can only imagine how nervous the home fans must have been at halftime, when the score remained 0-0. Their go-to forward, the naturalized Salvadoran Paolo Suarez, eased their concerns when he put away Metapan’s first, but a fortuitous equalizer for Real Espana brought the Hondurans (and the Rapids) back into the tie. Ramon Sanchez put Isidro Metapan back in the lead with a beautifully-executed free kick, and a second for Suarez near the end of the game sparked wild celebrations in the stands, before a late consolation goal by Espana’s Maynor Martinez forced Metapan to sweat out injury time. The Salvadorans managed to hold on for a 3-2 victory, making history as the first team from their country to reach the CCL quarterfinals and preventing an all-North American knockout round in the process.

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