Champions League 2012-13: It really is that simple

Posted on April 12, 2013 9:34 pm

Remember when MLS was clearly better than the Mexican league?

Many of you may wonder if I hit my head during the process of writing this piece. Back in 2007, though, quite a few Major League Soccer aficionados were pounding their chests and claiming supremacy following the group stage of the inaugural Superliga: Chivas, América and Morelia had all bowed out early, leaving Pachuca as the last Mexican pretender to the championship. Of course, the tuzos went on to win the whole thing, with the late Miguel Calero shredding the pro-MLS storylines by stopping an attempted “Panenka” by Joseph Ngwenya in the semifinal against the Houston Dynamo and parrying away what would have been the tournament-winning penalty by the LA Galaxy’s Landon Donovan.

Fast-forward six years, and this boast has largely been condemned to the dustbin: in the aftermath of the 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League semifinals, Mexico is now guaranteed to win a world-record eighth-straight continental club title, while its northern neighbor has only one runner-up to show for itself in the same period. The Seattle Sounders did come within a goal of doubling that figure, but the 1-1 draw earned in Torreon allowed Santos Laguna to progress 2-1 on aggregate. The LA Galaxy, on the other hand, never looked close to recovering from the 1-2 setback they suffered at home against Monterrey, only troubling Juan de Dios Ibarra on one occasion at the Tec.

While the two norteños prepare to reprise the previous CCL Final, and reignite the debate over whether there exists a rivalry between them (if it does, then brace yourselves: the rayados will face no fewer than four clásicos in only 13 days), others have taken to offering explanations for why MLS has failed to interrupt the Liga MX’s string of Club World Cup appearances. Donovan pointed to the sizable difference in salaries as the key factor, while ESPN’s David Faitelson singled out the spring-fall calendar as the main obstacle to regional success for US and Canadian representatives.

In my opinion, though, the best inference from these semifinals came from MLSSoccer’s “Armchair Analyst” Matthew Doyle. As regular readers know, I tend to focus more on the stories generated by and around the game than on breaking down the action itself (in Sports Illustrated terms, I would bear a closer resemblance to Grant Wahl than Jonathan Wilson); so it brought no small comfort to see someone with a significantly higher tactical literacy than myself also identify finishing as the variable that best explains these outcomes. In truth, this problem has plagued the US ever since Brian McBride hung up his cleats. For instance, the 2007 Gold Cup Final could easily have ended up 4-1 in the hosts’ favor, but a cheeky Brian Ching flick past Oswaldo Sanchez that hit the post and a wide-open DaMarcus Beasley shot that slammed off the crossbar left the US within a late Adolfo Bautista chance of extra time.

The scarcity of reliable US finishers has been repeatedly exposed in the CCL era. To date, not a single US player has won the CCL Golden Boot; in the knockout rounds, only Steven Lenhart (Columbus Crew vs. Toluca FC in 2009) and Herculez Gomez have left memorable performances, and the latter was apparently considered surplus to requirements for both Kansas City and the Colorado Rapids prior to his revenge tours with Santos Laguna. On the club level, this deficiency can be addressed by bringing in foreign talent; unfortunately for Seattle and LA, Obafemi Martins came in late (after a protracted contract struggle with his former club) and missed out through injury, while Robbie Keane wasted a golden opportunity in the first leg against Monterrey and spent most of the return match wondering why referee Roberto Moreno was not at his beck and call.

Speaking of which: to any self-identifying Eurosnobs out there, please ask Keane how easy it is to play in CONCACAF. Fortunately, the Irishman has managed to avoid such shenanigans on national-team duty, what with the superior standard of refereeing in his home continent.

The current Champions League will resume in just under two weeks, but there is plenty of qualifying action to fill the void in regional activity. First, down in Belize, Copa Centroamericana hero Deon McCaulay has led the Belmopan Bandits on a rampage, and the Opening Season champions maintain a nine-point lead over the Belize Defense Force in the full-year table with only three matchdays left in the Closing Season. The Bandits will receive FC Belize on Saturday at 9:30 p.m. (all times EDT), and any result other than a loss will guarantee them the right to Champions League participation…if Football Federation of Belize president Ruperto Vicente follows through on his oft-repeated promise to bring the FFB Stadium up to standard.

Later on, Nicaraguan Apertura winners Real Esteli will face similar circumstances in their visit to Managua FC at 10:00 p.m. Fresh off an eye-opening 12-0 win over the coachless and relegation-threatened Xilotepelt, and with a nine-point lead in the full-year table, Esteli will also simply need to avoid defeat to guarantee yet another year of continental exposure.

If either of the defending league champions fail to get the job done on their own, a slip-up from the last remaining chaser would gift them the CCL berth at the second opportunity. Diriangen must pull out a derby win over Walter Ferreti at 7:00 p.m. to maintain hopes of interrupting Esteli’s international monologue, while the Belize Defence Force will need to defeat San Felipe Barcelona on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. to keep up their pursuit of the Bandits. I am almost 100 percent certain that FutbolNica Radio will carry the Nicaraguan matches; unless someone provides the corresponding information for Belize, though, we will have to be patient until national newspaper Amandala reveals the results on Tuesday.

Lastly, while we await confirmation from either the Caribbean Football Union or CONCACAF (especially on the question of CCL eligibility), has provided the first glimpse of how this year’s CFU Club Champions Cup will work. I will finish by providing the groups, and hopefully the schedule will be released in the next week; the biggest takeaways, though, are the following:

- The notable absence of Jamaican clubs since 2009 has finally come to an end, as Boys Town Club will act as hosts in Group A.

- On the other hand, the dormant Puerto Rico Islanders’ record of participating in every CCL tournament since 2008 (only Olimpia and Isidro Metapan have accomplished the same) will also cease, as they have either not registered or failed to receive CFU approval to continue their sub-regional protagonism.

- Lastly, following CONCACAF’s habit of minimizing fixtures in unprofitable tournaments, this CFU Club Champions Cup will be the shortest one ever. It starts with two groups of four; the group winners qualify directly for the CCL, while the runners-up will play off for the last available spot (the article does not clarify whether this would take place through a home-and-away series or a one-off at a neutral site).

Group A

Boys Town Club (JAM)
Caledonia AIA (TRI)
Valencia (HAI)
Antigua Barracuda (ATG)

Group B

W Connection (TRI)
Baltimore (HAI)
Bayamón FC (PUR)
Inter Moengotapoe (SUR)

CCL 2013-14 Qualifiers

1. Sporting Kansas City [USA4]
2. San Jose Earthquakes [USA2]
3. Houston Dynamo [USA3]
4. LA Galaxy [USA1]
5. Toluca FC [MEX2 or MEX3]
6. Club Tijuana [MEX1]
7. Árabe Unido [PAN1 or PAN2]
8. Isidro Metapán [SLV1 or SLV2]
9. Olimpia [HON1]
10. Comunicaciones [GUA1 or GUA2]
11. LD Alajuelense [CRC1 or CRC2]
12. Real Estelí [NCA]
13. Belmopan Bandits [BLZ] *

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