Champions League Preview: 2012-13 Group Stage, Matchday 4

Posted on September 18, 2012 5:31 am

Want to hear something completely crazy?

Toronto FC’s season may not be over yet.

Of course, their quest to reach the MLS playoffs has been stalled for yet another year; and even among their compatriots, the 15-point gap between the Reds and the Vancouver Whitecaps leaves the latter requiring just one more draw to condemn Toronto to the lowest MLS seed for the 2013 Canadian Championship (assuming the format stays the same). The CONCACAF Champions League, however, may provide Paul Mariner’s side one last ray of light in 2012. Before we cover their chance at salvation, here are the fixtures for this week, with the group and home team listed first (all times EDT).

Tuesday, September 18:

2 – Tauro (PAN) vs. Real Salt Lake (USA), 8:00 p.m.
6 – Real Estelí (NCA) vs. Tigres UANL (MEX), 10:00 p.m.
8 – Xelajú MC (GUA) vs. W Connection (TRI), 10:00 p.m.

Wednesday, September 19:

5 – Puerto Rico Islanders (PUR) vs. LA Galaxy (USA), 8:00 p.m.
1 – Águila (SLV) vs. Santos Laguna (MEX), 10:00 p.m.
4 – Marathón (HON) vs. Seattle Sounders (USA), 10:00 p.m.

Thursday, September 20:

3 – Houston Dynamo (USA) vs. FAS (SLV), 8:00 p.m.
7 – Municipal (GUA) vs. Chorrillo FC (PAN), 10:00 p.m.

All the matches involving US clubs will be available on Fox Soccer Channel; among the Univision networks, Galavision will carry the games featuring Mexican clubs, Univision Deportes Network 2 (UDN2) will broadcast the Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy matches and UDN will show the rest. Unfortunately, I have yet to locate a weekly TV schedule for Fox Sports Latin America; unless CONCACAF releases a TV guide for the matchday, those of you in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean will have to flip to Fox Sports or Fox Sports+ when the games are on. Lastly, barring the listed restrictions, all eight matches will be streamed on CONCACAF TV.

Now then, where lies hope for TFC? While they prepare to visit the LA Galaxy next weekend, the other members of their Champions League group will face off at the Estadio Cuscatlan; and with one eye on their precarious domestic league standing, Santos Laguna opted to send Herculez Gomez and a bunch of scrubs to fulfill their continental obligations. Aguila are currently the worst team in the CCL by some measure, so Santos coach Benjamin Galindo’s confidence is well-justified; but it must be noted that the last time a Santos reserve squad traveled to El Salvador, Isidro Metapan punished their arrogance with a 2-0 win. On this occasion, should the emplumados save face in front of their own fans and restrict the Mexicans to a draw or worse, Toronto FC’s assignment would be rendered simpler (assuming that the Canadians do manage to extract three points from their Central American expedition): instead of having to build up a margin of at least three goals, any victory at the Nuevo Estadio Corona in October would allow Ryan Johnson and co. to return to the quarterfinals, against all odds.

Another team hoping to benefit from a guerrero slip-up are the LA Galaxy, current occupiers of the top ranking among group leaders, who will look to maintain control of Group 5 as they return to Puerto Rico for their showdown with an Islanders side on their last legs. The hammering dished out by the Galaxy reserves before the FIFA break could well have inspired head coach Bruce Arena to underestimate the tropa naranja; instead, he called up a more experienced squad for the trip to Bayamon, including recovering forward Edson Buddle and midfielders Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho. Mind you, the Islanders have only lost two CCL matches at the Estadio Juan Ramon Loubriel in five years, so a positive result for the illustrious visitors cannot be taken for granted.

While Santos and LA aim to maintain their perfect records, Chorrillo will attempt to get the first points for a Panamanian club in this season’s tournament, as they head to the opposite end of Central America to take on Municipal. The hosts, meanwhile, will be preoccupied with adjusting to the post-”Pando” era, now that Guillermo Ramirez and his band of merry match-fixers have received lifetime bans from FEDEFUT. The shadow of defending-champion Monterrey will temper the ambitions of both sides at the Estadio Mateo Flores; out west in Quetzaltenango, however, Xelaju will attempt to defend the driver’s seat in Group 8 as they host W Connection. A victory would grant them the opportunity to dismiss the favored Chivas with a draw in the Estadio Omnilife; the Caribbean visitors, however, need just one win to move into first place and another next week to conquer Group 8 outright.

As for the two leaders tied on points with their immediate rivals, dictating the pace in their respective groups is the order of the day. Tigres will make a historic visit to Nicaragua to take on a pointless Real Esteli, whose eagerness to improve on their deer-in-the-headlights performance at the Volcan in Monterrey will make up for their miniscule hope of avoiding elimination. The Houston Dynamo will similarly plan on taking care of business against last-place FAS.

I do have to correct the “Champion vs. Champion” claim in their promotional video, however: in this game, there will be none in sight. The Dynamo did win the Eastern Conference Championship (MLS Cup semifinal) last year; but MLS itself did not include conference titles among the major trophies obtained by member clubs in their 2011 Almanac. The tigrillos, on the other hand, failed to win either half-season tournament in El Salvador over the 2011-12 season, subsequently gaining entry to the CCL through a hand-me-down berth from Belize.

Real Salt Lake are suffering a similar drought of domestic success since their 2009 MLS Cup triumph, but Champions League survival is their immediate priority. Simply put, anything less than a victory in Panama will allow Herediano the opportunity to win Group 2 early, should the florenses defeat Tauro at the Estadio Nacional in San Jose home next week. While Jason Kreis’s side attempt to avoid a premature exit, another US participant could be forgiven for feeling that their continental adventure is just beginning.

MATCH OF THE ROUND

vs.

It is true that the Sounders have already played half of their group stage fixtures; but defending Caribbean champions Caledonia AIA hardly examined the Cascadians in their August series. Worse, those matches suffered from a significant lack of atmosphere, with fewer than 10,000 showing up in Seattle and a sparse crowd letting out a giant “meh” when a second-half penalty revived Caledonia’s hopes back in Trinidad and Tobago (sadly, the 13 Seattle supporters were by far the liveliest at the Ato Boldon stadium).

There remains one challenger for the quarterfinal spot, however, and Marathon’s fans will be out in force to provide the hostile surroundings that North American visitors have come to expect at the Estadio Olimpico. The monstruo verde is currently dead last in the Honduran league; but with a squad still featuring the likes of Mario Berrios, Nicolas Cardozo and World Cup veteran Jerry Palacios, they have retained the core of the team that reached the Champions League quarterfinals in 2009 and 2010. The Sounders they will face this week possess much more international experience than the debutants that naively coughed up an early 1-0 lead on the same occasion two years ago; nevertheless, Marathon will be motivated to retake control of the group by making the most of their home fixtures. Fredy Montero and co. can expect a full onslaught from their hosts; and for the Seattle fans watching back at home, hopefully Wednesday’s proceedings will reignite the sensation of fighting for continental glory that the previous kickarounds simply failed to provide.

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