Champions League Preview: Back on the Continental Trail
Posted on March 5, 2013 5:32 pm
By the time this entry is published, most football fans will be recovering from proceedings at Old Trafford, where two of the world’s most storied clubs fought for advancement to the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals.
For supporters of the LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo and the Seattle Sounders, imagine if it were your team lining up against three-time European Cup/Champions League winners Manchester United, or the most successful European club of all time, in a competitive match before an international audience with global prestige on the line. Now consider: if any of the three manage to win our own region’s continental championship, they will find themselves only one game away from facing either their European or South American counterparts in what would unquestionably be the biggest match in the history of US club football.
Of course, I have no need to go over this hypothetical with my Mexican readership, as América, Atlante and Monterrey have already lived the dream of throwing down with Europe’s finest. Only the latter will be able to earn a repeat performance this year, however, while fellow norteños Santos Laguna and Tigres hunt their first international title. As for Herediano and Xelaju, practically no one predicted that they would even reach this point, so any further progress towards the first CONCACAF club title for a Central American side since Saprissa in 2005 would be a welcome bonus.
The question of whose continental (and global) ambitions will be realized remains to be settled through the 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League knockout round, beginning with the quarterfinals this week. Here is the schedule for the first legs, with the home team listed first (all times EST).
Tuesday, March 5:
Houston Dynamo (USA) vs. Santos Laguna (MEX), 8:00 p.m.
Wednesday, March 6:
Xelajú MC (GUA) vs. CF Monterrey (MEX), 8:00 p.m.
Tigres UANL (MEX) vs. Seattle Sounders (USA), 10:00 p.m.
Thursday, March 7:
Herediano (CRC) vs. LA Galaxy (USA), 8:00 p.m.
Unfortunately, CONCACAF has yet to update its own television schedule, so those of you in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean will have to switch to Fox Sports and find out what is showing at the listed time (most likely, Tijuana’s Copa Libertadores match with world champion Corinthians will get the nod over Xela-Monterrey). In the US, though, all the games involving MLS teams will be broadcast on Fox Soccer Channel; in Spanish, Galavisión will carry Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s fixtures, while Herediano-LA will be available on Univisión Deportes Network.
Santos Laguna’s history at this stage is pretty well-defined: while the guerreros have yet to knock off a fellow Mexican club, their series against foreign opposition have generally featured an adverse result on the road, 45 minutes of allowing visitors to the Territorio Santos Modelo to delude themselves that victory is within sight, and a second-half blitzkrieg drowning the hapless foes in goals. Any chance for Houston to buck the trend will likely depend on the goalscoring opportunities generated by Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia, although Dominic Kinnear’s options for arming the front line (with Brian Ching winding down his career and Omar Cummings yet to reach full fitness) are disarmingly bereft of experience at this level. At the other end, only once in these circumstances have Santos failed to grab an away goal in the first leg (against Montreal in 2009); and with Oribe Peralta, Carlos Darwin Quintero and Herculez Gomez in their arsenal, the smart bet is on them either grabbing a draw or a close defeat, leaving an eminently straightforward assignment for a week’s time.
The LA Galaxy’s brief experience in the Champions League quarterfinals is the exact opposite: last year, after subduing what had been a tremendous atmosphere in Toronto with a 2-2 draw, they somehow crashed at home to a team that had never before beaten a US opponent over two legs in any competition. Any concerns over how they would adjust to the absences of David Beckham (now on Paris St-Germain’s books) and Landon Donovan (currently busy finding himself in southeast Asia), though, were addressed emphatically in Major League Soccer’s opening weekend, with a Mike Magee hat-trick fueling a 4-0 pummeling of the Chicago Fire. While a repeat performance in Costa Rica is likely not on the cards, the Galaxy’s 3-2-2 road record in the CCL speaks to the experience of Bruce Arena’s side with extracting results from trips south (and north) of the border.
On the other side, since overcoming Real Salt Lake in the CCL group stage and finishing within 30 minutes of a second-straight domestic title, Herediano have gone through two coaching changes. Claudio Jara was unceremoniously dropped by the incoming leadership; but new owner David Patey’s gamble on promoting Mauricio Solis to the head coaching position ended two weeks ago, after the ex-player led the florenses to only seven points from six games, good for 10th-place in the 12-team Costa Rican first division. Solis thus gave way to Marvin Solano, under whose guidance el Team have revived themselves, moving up to fifth place and within goal differential of a playoff spot thanks to a 2-0-2 record. Whether they will be prepared to handle the likes of Robbie Keane remains to be seen; keep in mind, though, that only few teams in our region have managed to keep RSL off the scoresheet for three hours.
While both sides will look to continue their domestic form, Xelaju and Monterrey would love nothing nothing more than to make up for theirs: neither are currently in position to reach their respective domestic Clausura playoffs…although the superchivos have plenty of time to reach eighth place (out of 12 teams – yes, apparently the directors of Guatemala’s Liga Nacional felt that MLS circa 2004 was the best model to emulate) and guarantee postseason play. On the continental front, all the elements of the Monterrey side that sliced through its group-stage opponents and finished third in the last Club World Cup are still in place, in spite of their misfiring performances in the Liga MX. And with Xelaju yet to win an away game in this tournament, only a victory at the Estadio Mario Camposeco tomorrow evening would give them a realistic shot at overthrowing the bicampeones. Their coach Hernan Medford, architect of the 2005 Saprissa triumph, already made his mark by dismissing Chivas with a mixture of local players and Costa Rican journeymen; most likely, the Quetzaltecos will hope for another moment of magic from top scorer Edgar Chinchilla along with a resolute performance from their defense in order to earn the desired outcome.
While the rayados look to snuff out any uncertainty, their crosstown archrivals face the greater obligation to push forward and take command of their series.
MATCH OF THE ROUND
So, how did the current Liga MX Clausura leaders end up as the sixth seed anyways? True to his disdain for international competitions, coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti preferred to utilize his reserve players for the group stage; and while Esteli and Alajuelense received hammerings at the Volcan, both clubs managed to restrict the felinos to draws on their Central American outings. With the Club World Cup now in sight, Tuca will send out something closer to the lineup that overran the Costa Ricans on Matchday 6; and with current top scorer Emmanuel “Tito” Villa out injured, perhaps Ferreti will provide himself a pat on the back for having blooded Alan Pulido in the earlier round. Add in the services of Danilinho, Damian Alvarez, Lucas Lobos and Luis Garcia, and the new-look Seattle back line missing the presence of Jeff Parke can expect a thorough examination. As for the visitors, unless Mauro Rosales and Mario Martinez can feed Eddie Johnson as much as they did against Montreal (and Johnson can shake off the wasted opportunities from the weekend), the main goal will be to keep Tigres within shooting distance.