Champions League 2012-13: Matchday 3 Review

Posted on September 1, 2012 9:13 pm

In my review of the current format for the CONCACAF Champions League, I suggested that Nicaraguan clubs stood to benefit directly from the reforms. The question of their readiness for increased exposure to continental play, however, had been left unaddressed. Real Esteli had left a good account of themselves in their preliminary matches with the Montreal Impact in 2008 and Toronto FC in 2011; while they never truly threatened to win either series, Samuel Wilson and co. held their Canadian opponents to three marginal victories and a scoreless draw. In the current campaign, facing a more stringent examination from Tigres and two-time Champions Cup winner Alajuelense, Esteli have performed like an average Central American club – that is, above expectations. A goleada in Mexico is a fate only avoided by the grandes of the isthmus, such as Olimpia and Comunicaciones, and Esteli achieved a slightly better result at home against the manudos than Motagua last year.

It remains to be seen whether the likes of Walter Ferreti or Diriangen would similarly overachieve at this level. And with Ruperto Vicente, President of the Football Federation of Belize, asserting that work is already underway to get FFB Stadium up to standard for the next CCL, we may soon have to wonder if the Belizean Premier League winner can avoid the punching bag role currently occupied by the ill-prepared Aguila. At least Esteli have proven capable of handling themselves well on the international stage, although competitiveness is still a few years of development away.

Among those with loftier ambitions, this week served as an opportunity to edge closer to the top ranks for the knockout round. While two such front-runners managed to strengthen their candidacies through valuable road wins, the club currently occupying the highest echelon managed to pad its goal differential in spite of giving its stars the day off.

TEAM OF THE ROUND

LA Galaxy (USA)

To be fair, Edson Buddle did see the field for a few minutes during the Galaxy’s 4-0 rout of the Puerto Rico Islanders. His recent return from injury, however, reduced this cameo to an exercise in recovering game rhythm; meanwhile, Robbie Keane served out his suspension, and undisputed starters Landon Donovan and David Beckham observed proceedings from the bench. Only head coach Bruce Arena knows if he primarily intended to give them rest or to send an implicit statement to CONCACAF about his continued displeasure with what happened last week. But after midfielder Mike Magee warned of avoiding the same sort of arrogance that contributed to the 4-1 loss to Puerto Rico two years ago, the starting line-up including Jose Villarreal, Jack McBean, Michael Stephens and Tommy Meyer appeared curious at best.

Nonetheless, Arena’s pupils repaid his faith in them by tearing apart the Islanders, with all four aforementioned players getting themselves on the scoreboard. One wonders just how badly the losses of former coach Colin Clark and goalkeeper Bill Gaudette have affected the tropa naranja, although they remain one of the best clubs in the NASL (US second division). The Galaxy took advantage of their defensive weaknesses at every opportunity, however, en route to a resounding, driver’s-seat-reserving victory. We will see, though, if placement for next year will sufficiently motivate Arena to commit more of his starters when the road fixtures arrive next month.

On a higher level, no fewer than three countries presented strong cases for this week’s honors. Both of Costa Rica’s representatives took care of business on either side of their nation’s borders, although Liga still find themselves a Miracle in Monterrey away from the knockout round. The US clubs will be similarly satisfied with their latest outings: while the Galaxy took maximum points from their home games, Seattle defeated Caledona AIA 3-1 for the second time in a row, and a 10-man Houston Dynamo held on for a 1-1 draw against Olimpia in Honduras. A couple of streak-ending performances, however, tipped the scale in favor of the strongest league in our corner of the world.

COUNTRY OF THE ROUND

Mexico

Let us start with the least impressive accomplishment: Chivas managed to distance themselves from their domestic malaise with a 4-0 hammering of W Connection, but the rebaño sagrado have more catching up to do in order to overcome Xelaju and avoiding being the first Mexican club to crash out of the CCL in the first round.

Santos Laguna and Monterrey, meanwhile, earned a significant advantage in their respective groups by conquering their direct rivals (Toronto FC and Municipal, respectively) in their own houses. Moreover, the norteños put an end to azteca futility in each venue: the rayados are the first Mexican club to emerge from the Estadio Mateo Flores with three points in the CCL era. As for Santos, although this statistic went largely unnoticed in the Mexican press, theirs was the first Mexican club triumph ever on Canadian soil.

GOAT OF THE ROUND

Toronto FC (CAN)

As a side effect, the two late goals effectively ended Toronto’s 2012 season, given that they are 19 points outside of a playoff spot in Major League Soccer with only seven games left. No one expected this from the Reds back in April, when they shockingly eliminated the LA Galaxy in the 2011-12 CCL and came within 45 minutes of reaching the Final. But a horrendous start to their MLS campaign cost Aron Winter his job, in spite of securing Toronto’s fourth-straight Canadian Championship. Assistant coach Director of Player Development Paul Mariner ascended to the vacancy, and Toronto’s MLS form temporarily improved; on the continental front, they pounded five goals past Aguila, building up their confidence ahead of their rematch with Santos.

But in a game that they simply could not afford to lose, Toronto failed to provide the same sort of offensive challenge to the Mexicans as they did in the previous CCL, with newly-acquired Eric Hassli particularly struggling to find service and threaten Oswaldo Sanchez. On the other side of the field, Santos simply bossed TFC around, keeping possession and tiring out the defense until, with little time remaining, Daniel Ludueña and then Candido Ramirez received through balls on the left with nary a red shirt in sight, launching their shots past an inexperienced Freddy Hall and wrapping up a crucial victory.

Let me introduce a new feature that will accompany us through the rest of the year. For those who enjoy anticipating which teams could meet later on in a tournament, I will indulge you by providing mock quarterfinals at the end of each matchday, based on how group leaders would rank against each other at the moment. A couple of clarifications: where two teams are level on points in the same group, I applied the group stage tiebreakers on their partial head-to-head record (e.g. Tigres currently leads Group 6 thanks to the two away goals scored in Alajuela, although the return leg has yet to be played). And in this hypothetical knockout round, the home-field advantage (i.e. hosting the second leg) would go to the first team listed in each quarterfinal, the winner of the above series on each side of the bracket in the semifinals, and the winner of the top half of the bracket in the Final.

Without further ado, here are the matchups at present.

IF THE GROUPS FINISHED TODAY…

LA Galaxy (USA) vs. Xelajú MC (GUA)
Seattle Sounders (USA) vs. Herediano (CRC)

Santos Laguna (MEX) vs. Houston Dynamo (USA)
CF Monterrey (MEX) vs. Tigres UANL (MEX)

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