Champions League 2012-13: Matchday 4 Review
Posted on September 21, 2012 9:56 pm
I had no idea Alvaro Saborio was a Beegees fan.
In the dying embers of Real Salt Lake’s sub-par outing in Panama, with the Americans practically resigned to watching their attempt at Champions League redemption flicker out in Costa Rica, the tico drew a penalty out of the onrushing Tauro goalkeeper, held his nerve and scored the game-winner in spite of a sprained shoulder from the initial foul. The result will hardly mask his side’s uninspiring performance, with Paulo Jr.’s insertion sparking some life in their lethargic attack, but at least they have maintained control over their chances at survival. As for Tauro, missing Edwin Aguilar through suspension and having lost Temistocles Perez to rivals Plaza Amador in the off-season, theirs was among the most impotent front lines I have ever seen, with at least two 5-v-2 opportunities in the last 10 minutes spurned through lazy dribbling.
Up in Guatemala, Municipal similarly left it late to overcome Chorrillo 2-1 and keep themselves within shooting distance of Monterrey. The Panamanians may count themselves unfortunate to have wasted away their first-minute lead; but theirs has been by far the worst performance among the Central American top seeds. Frankly, as the only country whose CCL participants have lost every match up to now, Panama is lukcy that no other league in the region is poised to demand their berth in Pot A, with El Salvador weighed down by Aguila’s and FAS’s horror shows and Canada having no league to speak of.
While the canaleros lick their wounds, their Guatemalan counterparts made the most of their home fixtures to stay in contention for the knockout round. Xelaju’s close victory over W Connection kept the superchivos in first place, dismissed the Trinis and condemned the favored Chivas to two straight elimination games (first assignment: don’t lose again in the Caribbean). On a side note, it also reinforced my belief that 3-2 is the scoreline most positively correlated with exciting games. Think about it: either one team goes up 3-0 and fights off a furious comeback, or one team overcomes a 2-0 deficit to win (like how a certain World Cup match should have ended), or the lead changes multiple times over the course of the match. In Xelaju’s case, twice the visitors canceled out their lead, and twice Hernan Medford’s side stormed back to gain all three points. The same storyline played out a day later in Honduras; only this time, the visitors held out for the victory and closed the group in the process.
TEAM OF THE ROUND
Seattle Sounders (USA)
En route to wrapping up the first spot in the quarterfinals, Seattle provided yet further proof of the impressive maturation the team has undergone in its three successive CCL campaigns. Two years ago, Alvaro Fernandez bailed the Sounders out with a second-half header to secure a 1-1 draw in El Salvador, allowing the Cascadians into the group stage; they subsequently got upended by Marathon in Honduras, and a foolish red card for Leo Gonzalez hamstrung the team as they slumped to a 2-0 defeat at Saprissa. This time, however, they kept their composure and kept up an offensive mentality in spite of the usual challenges of playing in Central America. While the fan presence weighed much less than expected (probably due to Marathon’s TFC-esque run in the local league), el monstruo verde challenged Gspurning with stinging shots, and their speedy forays in the box gave Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and co. numerous headaches, resulting in the penalties. Of course, when playing football did not work, the hosts relied on the fine art of simulation to get the referee’s attention, although Marlon Mejia only bit when he awarded the second foul inside the area (the disallowed Zach Scott goal is only mystifying if you forget that goalies are an endangered species in football – just ask Sol Campbell).
But after Mario Berrios’s first spot kick canceled out Sammy Ochoa’s opener, Eddie Johnson defied his wasteful marksmanship on the night by receiving a through ball from Andy Rose, popping it up to himself and blasting it past Jose Alberto Mendoza – a replica of Blas Perez’s goal for Panama at the same venue back in June. Following the controversial second penalty, Brad Evans rose highest to meet a cross and head in the game-winner, granting Seattle a return trip to the knockout round, a dead-rubber return leg against Marathon in October and a beeline for the #2 ranking among group winners (good for hosting the second leg of their knockout series up through the semifinals).
Combined with RSL’s aforementioned narrow escape and Houston’s 4-0 thumping of FAS, their achievement would normally be enough to guarantee the next honor for the US…were it not for the history made elsewhere in Central America.
COUNTRY OF THE ROUND
I will freely admit to making an exception this time: on the face of it, Real Esteli failed to get the needed result, they remain winless in continental play and they fell out of the current CCL.
And yet: a Nicaraguan team almost beat a Mexican team in football.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Seven years ago, when the Nicaraguan national team enjoyed their first realistic chance at qualifying the Gold Cup, Honduras mercilessly hammered them 9-1. At that time, the idea of one of their clubs holding their own against Mexican opposition would have been downright laughable; the likes of Diriangen couldn’t even handle the Copa UNCAF, regularly bowing out in the first or second rounds. Fast-forward to now: after reaching their first Gold Cup in 2009 and winning World Cup matches for the first time last year, the pinoleros are now a known threat for the last Gold Cup berth awarded in the 2013 Copa Centroamericana; meanwhile, on Tuesday evening, Esteli took a shock lead through a Juan Barrera header off the corner kick, and came within four minutes of defeating the first Mexican club ever to visit Nicaragua on competitive business.
Yes, the visitors enjoyed the lion’s share of possession (61 percent to 39 for el Tren del Norte). And yes, the scrubs that took the field in Tigres jerseys represented the weakest “first team” possible. Then again, that same team nearly beat Alajuelense in their own house. While Esteli disappointed themselves by letting a first-ever Champions League victory slip through their fingers, they have successfully changed the conversation about Nicaraguan football. No longer will others view the Nicaraguan CCL qualifier as the ATM machine; rather, with technical improvement (especially on offense), Esteli could well play a spoiler rule in future forays into the exterior, as they did on this matchday.
GOAT OF THE ROUND
Tigres UANL (MEX)
Surprisingly, most of the Mexican reaction to Tigres’ unexpected setback focused on the professional debut of Jorge Espericueta, a member of the 2011 u-17 World Cup-winning team who spared the club’s blushes by coolly slotting in the late equalizer. That is, while the press and Tigres fans expressed satisfaction and relief that Espericueta finally got to see some playing time, few recriminations were directed at the team for failing to produce the expected goleada.
Make no mistake, though: the regiomontanos threw away a golden opportunity to force direct rivals Alajuelense against the ropes. The tie will allow Tigres to remain in first place for now; but unless Esteli overachieve again next week, “Liga” will jump to six points and hold the advantage over Tigres heading into October (i.e. the manudos would simply need a draw in the Volcan to win the group). This setback falls entirely at the feet of head coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti, a man with a long track record of raging against the globalization machine. Whenever presented with an opportunity to participate in international tournaments, he has consistently chosen to send reserves and save as many first-team players for the domestic campaign as possible. Most infamously, he punted on the preliminary series against Unión Española of Chile in the latest Copa Libertadores, much to the ire of Tigres’ loyal fanbase.
All this leads me to a statement that, while potentially controversial, originates in a sincere desire to see my region represented well on the international stage: I really hope Tigres don’t win this CCL. Could you imagine Tuca lining up Jonathan Bornstein and co. against Mazembe in the Club World Cup? Or possible host-team Raja Casablanca? Or – perish the thought – Real Madrid? The humiliation would take years to live down.
Finally, a couple of points on the current bracket: one should keep in mind that the clubs idle this week have a game in hand. Also, with LA out of the picture, Santos Laguna have shot up to the #1 rank among group leaders; and barring a lackadaisical showing against Toronto, they should guarantee home-field advantage (i.e. hosting the second leg) through the entire knockout round…just like last season, except that this time they will have earned it on their own.
IF THE GROUPS FINISHED TODAY…
Santos Laguna (MEX) vs. Tigres UANL (MEX)
Houston Dynamo (USA) vs. Xelajú MC (GUA)
Seattle Sounders (USA) vs. Herediano (CRC)
LA Galaxy (USA) vs. CF Monterrey (MEX)