If you know me, or read this blog regularly, or follow me on Twitter (judging from my follower numbers, this seems the least likely of the three), you know I really look forward to the CONCACAF Champions League. The CCL bears little resemblance to the much more famous UEFA Champions League, but that shouldn't stop you from watching. No other championship in our region offers the high drama that regularly unfolds in CCL play. It's not the best soccer you'll ever see, but it often provides tremendous entertainment value.
MLS is well-represented, as always. Four teams from our league made it into the group stage, and LA would have made it five if not for a shocking home performance against the Puerto Rico Islanders (in my opinion, the second-worst MLS performance in CCL history, only just beating out New England's 4-0 capitulation at home against Joe Public in qualifying for the 2008-2009 edition). Defending MLS champs Real Salt Lake got a deceptively difficult draw in Group A, while the 2009 Supporters Shield winning Columbus Crew lucked into Group B, which looks pretty forgiving.
Meanwhile, both the US and Canadian national cup champions fought their way through the CCL qualifying round. Make no mistake about the qualifying round; despite the number of unknown, oddly-named clubs littering that list, it had functioned as something of a graveyard for MLS clubs in the past (before this year, MLS had gone 1-4 at this stage of the tournament, and the only success was DC United's penalty kick tiebreaker win over El Salvador's L.A. Firpo). The Seattle Sounders, having won the 2009 US Open Cup, landed in the very tricky Group C, while Voyageur Cup holders Toronto FC find themselves in the same Group A that RSL headlines.
We'll be giving each group a thorough examination, starting with Groups A and B today, followed by C and D tomorrow. So, how do I think Group A will go? Read on...
If you accept that Mexican clubs are generally the best in CONCACAF (and really, you have no argument otherwise), and you accept that MLS is probably the best league after that, then you're looking at Group A and thinking that someone good is going to be left behind. You'd already be tempted to look at Group A as the "group of death" as a result, right?
You might look at two-time Panamanian champions Arabe Unido (who were also a quarterfinalist in the last edition of the CCL) and see the weak link, a team that everyone should expect 6 points from. That would be ill-advised. La Liga Panameña may not have the cache of, say, the Costa Rican league, but if CCL spots are any way to judge, CONCACAF regards it as the region's fourth-strongest league (with Honduras third). Arabe may not be a familiar name, but they've been the class of Panamanian soccer for over a year now. With that in mind, I'd argue that this is both the hardest group in terms of finishing in the top two as well as the overall strongest group from top to bottom. All four of these clubs will be able to tell themselves that getting to the knockout round is a reasonable goal.
Real Salt Lake
How they got here: 2009 MLS Cup Champions (automatic berth)
RSL turned it on down the stretch, squeaking into the MLS playoffs as the 8th seed and using their form to get themselves into the final, where they triumphed on penalties thanks in part to penalty-saving wizard Nick Rimando.
Key players: Kyle Beckerman (defensive midfield), Jamison Olave (center back), Nat Borchers (center back)
With the MLS clubs, I'll be listing who needs to play well (not necessarily the three best players on the team). Beckerman's leadership will be a key factor in keeping RSL's players from falling prey to the CCL's many pitfalls (poor refs, endless gamesmanship). Olave and Borchers will need to make sure to not give up any easy goals, as CCL play is very unforgiving to such errors.
X-factor: Juggling Supporters Shield ambitions with the inevitable lineup changes it will require
Jason Kreis faces a very difficult task: Does he go for a prestigious trophy and prioritize the MLS regular season, or does he choose to ensure his side advances through a tough CCL group and focus on the MLS playoffs? MLS rosters simply don't allow teams to go all-out every three to four days, especially when you add in the travel required. Kreis should have no problem getting his team into the MLS playoffs with relative ease even with this fixture crunch, but it will make it awfully difficult to catch up to the LA Galaxy in pursuit of the Supporters Shield. The best course of action may be to play his best team in the three home games and at Toronto, but a lot will depend on what Dave Checketts and Garth Lagerwey list as their organizational priorities. If they'd prefer to take a shot at an MLS double, it will take some good fortune for RSL's reserves to find enough points to survive.
In depth: RSL is the top seed in Group A as MLS's defending champions. However, they didn't get much of a reward here. Toronto will know them all too well from MLS play; Cruz Azul has made the CCL final 2 times running and holds a 4-0 record (10 goals scored, 0 conceded!) against MLS since the format change; and Arabe Unido, the alleged minnows of the group, finished ahead of the Houston Dynamo in last year's group stage in part because they got a 4-1 win over eventual champions Pachuca. Personally, I think this is the toughest group in the tournament.
However, RSL has some things in their favor. Rio Tinto Stadium has become the most difficult stadium to visit in MLS. Intriguingly, the group schedule will emphasize two of the environmental factors when RSL hosts non-MLS opposition. Arabe Unido got lucky in getting to play at Rio Tinto on August 18th, as they'll dodge the cold weather that would have probably bothered them quite a bit. However, there's no time of year in which the altitude changes in Utah, and Arabe comes from the sea-level port city of Colon.
Meanwhile, the winter weather will help RSL as they close the group with a home game against Cruz Azul. The temperatures might not match Columbus in February, but RSL may be able to benefit from a lesser version of the plan that has served US Soccer so well. If you're a Real Salt Lake supporter, hope mid-October contains a cold spell (maybe with some snow).
Even with theipotentially complicated juggling act in terms of player selection (something Kreis has already begun if his lineup at Philadelphia this past Wednesday is any indicator), RSL should find their way through this group. Cruz Azul is the realistic favorite, but at Rio Tinto RSL should expect three points against anyone. 9 points at home and a draw at Arabe Unido or in Toronto are reasonably attainable goals, and 10 points would almost certainly get RSL through to the knockout stage.
CD Arabe Unido
How they got here: 2009 Apertura and 2010 Clausura champions (automatic berth)
"La Furia Colonense" won each of the last two Panamanian half-seasons, defeating Tauro FC 3-2 in the Apertura final and topping San Francisco FC 1-0 in the Clausura. These victories were no fluke; combine the records from the Apertura and Clausura, and Arabe would have won the Panamanian equivalent of the Supporters Shield as well.
In the past, the Panamanian league only got two spots in the CCL, and neither was an automatic berth into the group stage. However, CONCACAF looked over past results in the tournament and re-allocated one group stage spot to Panama from El Salvador. Arabe picked the right year to be the dominant power in Panama, and as a result they're the second seeded team in Group A.
Key players: Orlando Rodriguez (striker), Jose Justavino (attacking midfielder), Andres Santamaria (center back)
Rodriguez is a regular first-choice for Panama, and had a spectacular 2009-2010 CCL (8 goals in 10 games, including 7 of his side's 13 group stage goals). If they're going anywhere in this difficult group, "Papi" will have to take his chances with the same sort of regularity while avoiding a tendency to get lazy when his team is being out-possessed.
Justavino is not a regular in Panama's squad, but I have no idea why. He's the primary creative force on his country's best club side, whether he functions as an attacking midfielder, withdrawn forward, or on either wing (Arabe used him in all four of those roles in last year's CCL). Justavino has a knack for finding the gaps in defenses and the ability to play good enough passes to take advantage. There are two ways to deal with Justavino. You can either retain possession so that Justavino spends his time running rather than passing (something RSL and Cruz Azul will probably choose), or you can harass him the moment he gets the ball (Preki's TFC will be all too happy to choose this method). Justavino's not a speedy player, nor does he seem particularly willing to play one-touch, high-paced soccer, so high pressure can keep him quiet if it's implemented while keeping proper shape.
Santamaria may end up being the most vital player to Arabe's cause. The Colombian center back isn't particularly imposing physically, but he'll probably function as the organizer after his former partner, 39 year old Reynaldo Lewin, retired in June. Santamaria will have quite a task on his hands; aside from coping with two of the best attacking teams in the tournament, he will also be charged with helping his fellow defenders maintain their discipline. In last year's tournament, several Arabe players showed both short fuses and an inability to adjust to the vagaries of CONCACAF officiating. In particular, their home game against the Houston Dynamo was marred with near-constant bookings for both sides, a sequence of events primarily stemming from the Panamanian side's inability to control their emotions.
As I was saying, Arabe's discipline could end up being their biggest weak spot. The nickname "La Furia Colonense" appeared apt last year, as Arabe players attempted to provoke fights, overreacted to run-of-the-mill fouls, and went flying into reckless challenges far too often. If Arabe is to advance to the knockout stage like they did last year (at the expense of Houston), it will be vital that they focus more on playing soccer and less on fighting their opponents and screaming at referees. It's already going to be a tall order, but playing down a man at altitude or in colder conditions than they're used to (Arabe closes the group at Toronto on October 19th, which plays right into the Canadian side's hands) would likely lead to a multi-goal defeat.
In depth: Last year's Arabe showed some ability going forward and some athleticism, but they didn't strike me as the smartest team on the planet. However, the fact that they're the minnows of Group A in terms of name recognition should not mean they're viewed as a pushover. Using their play in last year's tournament, it seems safe to say that they're one of the best clubs in Central America, right up with anyone from the Honduran or Costa Rican leagues. Like I said earlier, this is a team that beat Pachuca and eliminated Houston in last year's tournament. I don't see Arabe advancing, but they're not going to embarrass themselves by any stretch of the imagination.
CDSC Cruz Azul
How they got here: 2009 Apertura Season runner-up; 9-2 aggregate qualifying round win over San Francisco FC (Panama)
Perennial Mexican bridesmaids (since 1997, they've placed 2nd in Mexico four times, as well as two straight losses in the CCL final and a 2001 loss in the final of the Copa Libertadores), Cruz Azul found themselves in the qualifying round after a 6-4 aggregate loss to CF Monterrey. In the first leg, La Maquina shockingly trailed 2-1 against San Francisco (who only got into the qualifying round after the champions from Belize and Nicaragua were disqualified due to their countries lacking a stadium that met CONCACAF standards). The Mexico City giants came back to win the away leg 3-2 thanks to an Emmanuel Villa hat trick. At home, things went more to plan, with Javier Orozco bagging the hat trick this time around and Cruz Azul strolling to a 6-0 win that was as easy as it sounds.
Key players: Javier Orozco (striker), Horacio Cervantes (center back), Gerardo Torrado (defensive midfield)
In Cruz Azul's perpetual three-striker alignment (more likely a 433 under Enrique Meza, but don't rule out a 343 being used at home), Orozco normally backs up Villa. However, Cruz Azul has the depth to compete on two fronts, and that usually means Villa plays league matches while Orozco gets the CCL starts. It's not much of a drop off; Orozco managed 7 goals in the 2008-2009 CCL, 6 in 2009-2010's tournament, and already has 3 in this edition.
Meanwhile, Cervantes will function as the team's defensive heart, and La Maquina's defense rarely looks troubled in this tournament (save when they play other Mexican clubs; those games often turn into end-to-end affairs). At 6'3", Cervantes dominates aerial battles and rarely makes mistakes.
Finally, club captain and Mexico international Torrado was ever-present in the last two tournaments, but may be rested occasionally now that Cruz Azul has another El Tri player (Gonzalo Pineda) to play that role. However, Meza will likely choose Torrado in the big games, where his tough-as-nails tackling, reliable positional sense, and simple possession play are key components in keeping Cruz Azul in charge of matches.
X-factor: Enrique Meza
"Ojitos" Meza was previously the architect of Pachuca's near-constant success both in Mexico and internationally, but has now been with Cruz Azul for a season. Meza is arguably the best coach at a CONCACAF club side, and is adept at getting his teams to impose their attacking style home and away. He's also not wedded to any one tactical system; his Pachuca teams were mostly 442 outfits, while he now employs both the 433 and 343 at Cruz Azul. The other teams in the group will need to watch out for Meza's in-game adjustments, as he has a knack for finding the weak spots in his opponent and finding the best way to exploit it on the fly.
It's also worth mentioning that Meza has an excellent record in international play. With Pachuca, he won the 2006 Copa Sudamericana (the first time a Mexican club ever won a CONMEBOL tournament) and the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2007 and 2008, as well as finishing second in last year's CCL. Simply put, the guy gets results.
In depth: Cruz Azul is the favorite in this group. In fact, they are on my list of favorites to win the whole tournament (along with Toluca and Monterrey). They're deep, adaptable to most situations, and put opposing defenses under a ton of pressure. The key, though, is that they strike a balance between attack and defense very well. While they're capable of putting up three or more goals in just about every game, they're just as likely to get a shut out. With very few exceptions, their players are smart, skillful, and work together well as a unit. One last note: If you've never seen a Cruz Azul home game, be prepared to find yourself hating the experience. Every attack by the home side is greeted by a train horn, no matter how innocuous the move forward is. It's far worse than vuvuzelas in my book.
How they got here: 2010 Voyageurs Cup winner; 3-2 aggregate qualifying round win over CD Motagua (Honduras)
Toronto finally got into the CCL group stage at the third time of asking. After winning the Canadian Championship with relative ease, the Reds faced a tricky opponent in Honduran side CD Motagua, a team well-stocked with players from the Honduran World Cup squad (including former TFC star Amado Guevara).
Hosting the first leg, Toronto dominated play but could only come up with a 20th minute goal by Chad Barrett. After a bizarre trip south, TFC conceded early (to Guevara, predictably) and then had to rely on high quality goalkeeping from Stefan Frei and some truly awful finishing from Motagua to just keep the aggregate scores level. The Reds needed a hero (other than Frei), and who else but Dwayne De Rosario would step up to give TFC a massively important away goal against the run of play in the 59th minute. Guevara responded just five minutes later from outside the box, but the home side still needed a goal to avoid elimination on the away goals rule. After a couple more wasted chances (it must be emphasized that Motagua could have easily scored five or six goals; they sorely regretted the absence of Honduras striker Georgie Welcome, who was on trial with Rangers), Barrett finished off a breakaway via a very kind deflection and the Canadians were on their way.
Key players: Dwayne De Rosario (attacking midfield), Stefan Frei (goalkeeper), Nana Attakora (center back)
No points for guessing the first two names on this list. De Rosario is often a one-man show for Toronto going forward. He is the team's best scorer as well as their best creator of chances. Preki will have to find a way to keep him fresh despite needing him in both the CCL and MLS.
Frei was the key player in the qualifying round for the Reds, and if they get anywhere in this group he'll have to be just as good. Toronto's defense looks shaky against almost any attack, so games against RSL and Cruz Azul will surely see Frei end up with high save totals.
Speaking of the TFC defense, someone is going to have to step up and corral this group. Frei can be brilliant all he wants; if you defend poorly enough, good teams will score goals on you no matter who you have in goal. The Reds won't get the kind of luck they got in Honduras in this group; defending like that will result in some embarrassing scores. Attakora will need to play better as an individual while also doing more to organize and inspire the guys around him.
X-factor: Julian De Guzman
De Guzman was, in the very recent past, considered the best player at a respectable La Liga club. Now, he's well behind De Rosario and Frei at Toronto. He's obviously a smart player with plenty of skill, but he needs to be more than a classy role player if TFC is going anywhere in this tournament. Toronto is going to need someone to drive them forward from midfield, and they'll also need someone to break up tons of plays when they don't have the ball. De Guzman does both of these things to a certain degree, but to survive this group they'll need him to do those things without qualification. To put it another way, De Guzman should be one of the TFC players that could crack the lineup for Cruz Azul or for RSL. You can't say for sure that he plays like it, though, and he has to do more for Toronto to get through.
In depth: Preki has Toronto playing the most effective (if not necessarily attractive) soccer they've ever played. However, it's going to take more than that to finish in the top half of a group with two of the top contenders in the entire field. Look for the defense-first mantra that defines Preki's teams to shine through in the CCL even more than it normally does. Preki and his assistants will have been very worried watching Motagua tear TFC apart time and again only to botch the resulting chances, and they'll also be plenty aware that their opponents in this group all have strikers that tend to punish you when given the chance. As a result, I think Toronto will pull back into a shell to try and protect a fragile back four.
Projected order of finish:
1. Cruz Azul - They'll win at least four, and possibly five games; at RSL and at Toronto are the ones they might struggle in, but they'll still win the group
2. Real Salt Lake - Their strength at home should get them into 2nd place, but they will have to use their best team to make sure that's how things go
3. Arabe Unido - My hunch is that they can get two home wins. Never underestimate a team that has only known winning in the past year.
4. Toronto FC - This is just a bad draw for TFC. In other groups, they'd have had a real shot at advancing, but their defense is going to give the sharp finishers in Group A too many chances.
Check back later today for my preview on Group B, with Groups C and D coming tomorrow.