The CCL draw has often been cruel to MLS clubs in the group stage. DC United has ended up with some brutal draws (including a spot in the 2008-2009 edition's "group of death"), while both Houston and Columbus have not gotten off much easier. Along with the obligatory Mexican giant, MLS teams seem to have a knack for ending up in groups with the top Central American clubs (like Marathon or Saprissa), while there is always that one group that looks like it would be a stroll by comparison.
However, an MLS club finally got lucky this time around. The Crew were seeded into Group B, which should be the tournament's weakest group. While Santos Laguna will justifiably see themselves as the favorites, the Crew will not be intimidated at all by the rest of Group B (Guatemala's Municipal and Joe Public of Trinidad & Tobago).
Frankly, if either Columbus or Santos find themselves eliminated before the knockout stage begins, they'll have only themselves to blame. To find out why, read beyond the jump:
How they got here: 2009 MLS Supporters Shield (automatic berth)
The Crew won their second straight Supporters Shield in 2009, holding onto first place overall in the MLS standings despite losing three of their last four regular season games.
Key players: Chad Marshall (center back), Guillermo Barros Schelotto (attacking midfield/forward), Steven Lenhart (striker)
Marshall is often touted as MLS's premier defender (I'd take Conde over him, but that's neither here nor there) because of his positioning and his aerial dominance. While that will come in handy against Joe Public, the challenge against Santos and Municipal will be different. Those clubs will try to manufacture their goals via speed and movement off the ball. Marshall is probably up to the job as an individual, but he's also the leader of the Crew back four. Keeping that group in sync and aware of where the runners are coming from is going to be a big task for him, especially against Santos.
Obviously, Schelotto is usually the Crew's most important player. The Columbus attack flows almost entirely through Schelotto, both in the run of play and on set pieces. However, with Robert Warzycha's men potentially flirting with MLS history (no one has ever won three straight Supporters Shields), how often will Schelotto be used in CCL play? Last year, Warzycha seemed almost overeager to rest Schelotto, and the Argentine chafed at having to sit out when he felt fit. Can those two figure out the best way to keep El Guille fresh and influential in both competitions? The best way forward may be to deploy Schelotto as a super sub in a few CCL games; Columbus should have the strength to battle their way to results against Municipal and Joe Public, or at least keep things level and allow Schelotto to come on and give them the moment of class they need to turn the match.
Someone has to lead the line for Columbus, and the combative Lenhart appears to have the job for now. Emilio Renteria will see a lot of time on the flanks with Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven both currently injured, new signing Andres Mendoza has only just signed, and Jason Garey (assuming he's fully recovered from a bizarre illness that left him hospitalized) has struggled for goals. Lenhart has had that same problem, but he did notch both goals in the Crew's 2-1 win at Philadelphia. CCL defenses are going to find out what everyone in MLS already knows: Lenhart is extraordinarily hard to play against. He combines work rate, aggression, and a healthy dose of talk into a style of play that often leaves opponents angry and/or on the ground. In Group B, he'll have to find a way to provoke defenders without drawing the wrath of card-happy CONCACAF officials.
X-factor: Can the Crew successfully juggle their priorities?
Like Real Salt Lake, Columbus faces a very full schedule with many priorities to sort out. Not only will the Crew be looking for another Supporters Shield and prepping for the MLS playoffs, they're also still alive in the US Open Cup, facing a semifinal against DC United (don't overlook us, Crew fans). Finding a way to field winning teams across four competitions is a challenge for teams like Manchester United and Chelsea, with their world-class stars and their endless depth; Columbus will tackle a clogged list of fixtures with just 23 players on their current roster. Add in recent injury troubles (the Crew went into this past weekend's 2-0 loss to RSL with only 6 players on their bench), and you have a real challenge.
One thing in Warzycha's favor is that the Crew style of play is very much based on pragmatism above all else. If turning games into choppy battles that barely leave the middle third is what it'll take to get a point or three, Columbus has no problem getting ugly. The reason this is valuable is that the Crew can rotate their squad and implement this approach with just about any combination. Sticking with a fairly uniform style of play, and being good at it, should be enough to keep Columbus atop the Eastern Conference while also pushing through this group.
In depth: The Crew should have no real problem with Joe Public, whose style of play is very similar to what we see in MLS but lacks the skillful attacker or two most teams have. Assuming the injury situation doesn't worsen, it would be a real letdown if Columbus doesn't take 6 points from the Trinidad & Tobago champions.
Columbus should also be able to get the better of Municipal. There's just too much size and savvy on the Crew roster, and Municipal will struggle to cope with the fact that the smallest Columbus starter would be above-average in height and weight if he played for the Guatemalans. Things might get particularly ugly when the Crew fly south to Guatemala, but one would expect Columbus to be able to find a win in both games.
That leaves Santos, who will probably bedevil the Crew (especially if Columbus fields a less than full strength team). There's simply too much firepower on their roster, and Columbus would do well to simply hold serve at home. Even if Santos does beat them at Crew Stadium, the real key matches in this group for Columbus are against the lesser teams. 10 points would, barring a miraculous Santos loss against either Joe Public or Municipal, be enough to go through; 12 points would make it certain.
How they got here: 2009 Guatemalan Apertura and 2010 Clausura Champions (automatic berth)
Municipal is the other seeded team in Group B, having won both Guatemalan championships in this past year. In the Apertura, La Maquina Escarlata won their title without conceding a single goal in the playoff phase, winning the championship 1-0 on aggregate over traditional rivals Comunicaciones.
They went about winning the Clausura in a slightly different manner: 4-3 and 3-2 aggregate wins carried them to the final, where they crushed fellow CCL participant Xelaju 7-1 over two legs.
Key players: Jaime Penedo (goalkeeper), Guillermo "El Pando" Ramirez (attacking midfield), Pablo Melgar (center back)
Those who play close attention to CONCACAF World Cup qualifying will recognize these names. First up is Penedo, the first-choice goalkeeper for Panama. If Municipal is going to go through, they're going to have to pick up a win over Columbus or Santos (both of whom should be expected to create tons of chances against Municipal). If Los Rojos are put under sustained pressure, it's highly likely that they'll need some spectacular saves from Penedo to have any hope of picking up points.
Pando Ramirez was often mocked during his spell in MLS, even if he did sign off by smashing a glorious MLS Cup-winning volley for the Galaxy (only his second goal for LA, despite starting all season and attempting 62 shots in the regular season). However, Ramirez has still maintained his spot as Guatemala's preferred playmaker, and returns to Municipal this season after a year at Marathon of Honduras. He is the dominant creative force for La Maquina Escarlata, and you can be sure that he'll be the danger man whenever Municipal come forward.
Melgar may be the least recognizable name, but he too starts for Guatemala and will marshal the Municipal defense. As their lack of a target forward will probably leave Los Rojos unable to hold much meaningful possession, Melgar and his fellow defenders will be under enormous pressure. Even if Penedo stands on his head, there's only so much a keeper can do if the guys in front of him don't maintain their shape. Melgar, along with former MLS defender Gustavo Cabrera, will need to be at his best against both the skill of Santos and the power that will be offered up by the attackers from Columbus and Joe Public.
X-factor: Municipal will not see themselves as underdogs
On paper, this group appears to be very easy to figure out. However, Municipal arrives in Group B having won two straight titles and calling on plenty of players that start for their national teams. This is a team with a winning mentality, and teams like that don't just show up as sacrificial lambs. While Columbus and Santos should be able to beat Municipal home and away, that doesn't mean it's going to be easy. Municipal will expect to win their home games against anyone, even if it's a slightly unrealistic perspective. When people say winning is a habit, what they're referring to is the confidence winning teams develop. Municipal may not be able to compete in terms of talent, but they will have the belief in themselves to make life difficult for their foes.
In depth: Municipal will likely look at their games against Joe Public and their home game against Columbus as their key matches. Central American clubs generally look down on their Caribbean counterparts in the CCL, even though this has not always been a reasonable attitude to take (for example, in last year's tournament Trinidad & Tobago's W Connection won 3-0 at the previously mentioned Comunicaciones). Municipal will have to take Joe Public seriously if they want to take the six points against them that they'll likely need to have any hope of advancing from this group.
To succeed, Municipal's players will have to do everything they can to keep their composure, as Guatemalan sides often fall prey to picking up bookings for things like dissent or needlessly hard challenges. In the CCL, red cards are always a threat, and Municipal isn't going to grab any points if they can't maintain their discipline. Playing against the elusive players Santos employs will be frustrating, while dealing with the physicality of Columbus and Joe Public will offer up a different form of irritation.
The bottom line for Municipal is that getting out of this group will be a monumental achievement. Santos should be a goalscoring machine, Columbus is the kind of team everyone hates playing, and Joe Public has a surprising amount of offensive muscle (as seen in their six goals over two legs in the CCL qualifying round). It will take top-notch performances in every game from everyone in their squad. That said, none of those clubs are going to particularly enjoy their visits to Guatemala City, where they're guaranteed to face a real battle.
Club Santos Laguna
How they got here: 2010 Clausura runner-up; 6-0 aggregate qualifying round win over San Juan Jabloteh (Trinidad & Tobago)
A decent regular season got Santos into the Mexican Liguilla, where they scraped past Pumas UNAM 2-1 on aggregate before demolishing Monarcas Morelia 10-4 over two legs. The final against Toluca went to penalties, where Santos had a 3-1 lead after three rounds. Victory seemed imminent, only for Santos to miss three straight penalties while Toluca converted three in a row, handing Los Diablos Rojos the championship.
In the qualifying round, Santos faced an inspired San Juan Jabloteh side, who played the heavily favored Mexicans even for most of the match only to concede an 83rd minute goal to Chilean winger Rodrigo Ruiz. Hosting the second leg at Nuevo Estadio Corona, Santos landed what appeared to be the knockout blow in just the third minute via a goal from Rodolfo Reyes. The Trinidadians rallied, however, and put up a good fight through the first half to give themselves an outside hope of a comeback. Those hopes, however, were dashed as Rodolfo Salinas scored just moments into the second half. The floodgates opened after that, as Los Guerreros bagged three more goals to win 6-0 on aggregate (and could have had several more if not for the efforts of San Juan goalkeeper Cleon John).
Key players: Francisco Javier Torres (midfield), Juan Pablo Santiago (center back), Carlos Darwin Quintero (forward)
Torres is the metronome in the Santos midfield, despite playing a variety of roles. Mostly, he plays ahead of a defensive midfielder but not far enough forward to be called an attacking midfielder. However, there are times where he drifts into a left-center role (sort of like Will Johnson at Real Salt Lake), and in some instances he will push up to the top of a diamond. No matter where he ends up, the ball generally finds him. The task for Torres in this group will be to maintain a good rhythm for Santos against feisty teams like Columbus and Municipal, as well as a Joe Public team that will likely flood the midfield. If teams can hassle Torres enough to put him off his game, they could have success against Santos, who tend to lose their heads a bit when games aren't played in their style.
Moving towards the back, Santiago is often selected in CCL play despite being behind Felipe Baloy and Jonathan Lacerda on the Santos depth chart. Santos has had a pattern of choosing a mostly second-choice defense (save for left back Jose Antonio Olvera), and Santiago is the main organizer of that group. While they did keep clean sheets against San Juan Jabloteh, that group did give up more chances than one would expect given the gap in quality between the two teams. Columbus and Joe Public will attack in a similar manner, but (especially in the case of the Crew) have better offensive players. Santiago and his fellow defenders will have to do better to prevent Los Guerreros from having to rely entirely on their potent attack.
Finally, we have Quintero, who is one of my favorite players to watch in all of CONCACAF. Quintero has outlandish skill and plays with more than a little swagger. He's an outrageously gifted dribbler, almost a throwback to a bygone era, and also possesses a deceptively powerful shot. CCL defenses are going to have their hands full of the little Colombian (he's all of 5'5"). Quintero tends to influence games no matter what kind of form he's in, and no matter how many minutes he gets. He may only start a couple CCL matches, but he's almost always brought in as a sub. Generally speaking, Quintero comes on and Santos scores goals soon thereafter. He even scores when he's playing poorly (in that 5-0 qualifying round win over San Juan, Quintero came on with the score 2-0 and clearly had nothing on his mind but scoring; he flubbed three chances within 10 minutes by attempting something overly elaborate, and still ended up scoring once and being heavily involved in two more). If you have no other reason to watch the CCL, it should be to watch Quintero.
X-factor: Can they strike the right balance between attack and defense?
The strong point in the Santos team is their attack. Goals will never be a problem for Ruben Romano's men. What few challenges Santos will come up against in this group will all relate to their defending. There are issues on the individual level (like coping 1v1 with big, aggressive strikers like Lenhart) as well as questions that apply to the entire team (who will do the defending when just about everyone seems to want to jump into the attack?). Santos will probably have the firepower to mask these deficiencies, but a couple slip-ups could cost them first place if Columbus brings their A game to this tournament.
In depth: Quintero is joined by attackers like Christian Benitez, Oribe Peralta, and Daniel Luduena, all of whom are among the most dangerous players in Mexican soccer. If there was a CCL fantasy league, you'd want to stock up on guys wearing the characteristic green hoops of Santos. Even if Peralta (who will likely start more often than Benitez; I'm guessing Romano will save "Chucho" for league play) can be wasteful and somewhat lazy, this is an attack that you can bank on to score in every game of the group stage (and probably more than once).
Obviously, I have my misgivings about their defense. Santiago is a pretty solid player, as is Olvera on the left, but after that there are question marks. Rafael Figueroa looks like he'll be at right back instead of normal starter Jorge Estrada. Figueroa is a positionally sound defender, but in CCL play he seems to be drawn into the possibility of doing more attacking than he normally does. This can disrupt his game and get him away from what he does best, which is somewhere along the lines of Bryan Namoff's approach to the position. Meanwhile, if Romano does indeed rest Baloy and Lacerda for most of these games, Santiago's central partner will probably be youngster Uriel Alvarez, who looked very young indeed against San Juan Jabloteh. While this group will be ably shielded by either Jaime Toledo or Juan Pablo Rodriguez, it's still a shaky bunch. Again, it's probably not enough to stop Los Guerreros from a first-place finish, but it is enough to make me leave them off my list of favorites to win the whole tournament.
Joe Public FC
How they got here: 2009 T&T Pro League champions; 2010 Caribbean Football Union Club Championship runner-up; 6-4 aggregate win over Brujas FC (Costa Rica)
Joe Public's path to the CCL is a long one. Winning the T&T Pro League involved finishing first in the regular season, followed by winning an odd round-robin playoff known as the "Big Six." In the end, the Eastern Lions were three points clear at the top when the dust settled.
This victory sent Joe Public to the Caribbean Football Union club championship, where they thrashed several opponents from soccer powers like Suriname and St. Vincent and the Grenadines (no disrespect, Ezra Hendrickson!). In a championship round that sees three of four teams go through, the Eastern Lions guaranteed their spot in the CCL by getting four points from their opening two games. Despite a shocking loss to Puerto Rican League champs Bayamon FC in the final game, Joe Public came in 2nd place and were entered into the CCL draw.
Key players: Marvin Phillip (goalkeeper), Kerry Baptiste (forward), Trent Noel (defensive/central midfield)
With the retirement of Clayton Ince, Phillip is now Trinidad & Tobago's first-choice goalkeeper. Even with the presence of fellow national team defenders Radanfah Abu Bakr and Makan Hislop in front of him, Phillip will have to have a spectacular tournament if Joe Public is to pull off the unthinkable and advance. Phillip is a steady goalkeeper for the most part, but sometimes leaves you wondering if he can come up with the high-quality save when his team really needs it. Being merely solid is respectable enough, but Joe Public will need Phillip to play well above that, particularly against Columbus and Municipal (we can go ahead and assume that, try as they might, Joe Public will not be taking any points from Santos).
Captaining the side is Kerry Baptiste, another Soca Warrior. While he plays as a right winger internationally, Baptiste is Joe Public's deadliest forward. How vital is he? During the 2009 T&T Pro League season, Baptiste scored a ridiculous 35 goals in 25 matches. That figure was more than double what the golden boot runner-up had, and was 59% of Joe Public's goal total for the season. Baptiste is good in the air, fast, and has respectable skill as a creator to go with his finishing ability. There are two sides of the coin when you're talking about a player that does so much for your offense: Either you succeed because he came up with the goals when they were needed, or you fail because you were overly reliant on one player to do everything. Baptiste will be targeted by everyone in this group, and he'll have to answer the challenge; otherwise, it's hard to see where the goals will come from.
All that said, I have a sneaky feeling that midfielder Trent Noel may end up being just as crucial to the Eastern Lions' cause. Noel (you guessed it, another regular for Russell Latapy's Soca Warriors) is a box-to-box midfielder and will be counted on to excel both as a creator and as a destroyer. The need to disrupt possession-oriented teams like Santos and Municipal is evident, but perhaps the biggest concern for Noel will be what he does when Joe Public is in possession. Joe Public tends to attack down the flanks via Hayden Tinto (yet another Trinidad & Tobago regular) and former Harrisburg City Islander Yu Hoshide. Noel's job will be to find those wide men in positions in which they can fire in crosses. If that supply line is cut off, Joe Public will struggle to find Baptiste, which would more or less eliminate them as an attacking threat.
X-factor: Do they have the discipline?
As you've no doubt gathered, the Eastern Lions have several players that are regulars for Trinidad & Tobago. While the mental side of their game isn't in doubt, they have several role players that are more questionable. Each of their Group B opponents will offer decent off-the-ball play, so positional discipline is a must for Joe Public to protect their goal. Meanwhile, coping with the potentially provocative opposing players they'll encounter is just as vital; CCL refs usually allow the first few bad tackles to go unpunished, which opens the door for retaliation later. That's where CCL games often get bogged down in red cards and scuffles. The less experienced Joe Public players have to realize this sort of thing is coming and be smart; things will be hard enough for them with a full compliment of eleven men on the field.
In depth: While Joe Public is probably the least skillful team in Group B, the gap is not as large as you might think. Baptiste and Tinto, in particular, have some real quality with the ball at their feet. If teams fail to respect those players, they could find themselves behind in a hurry. However, I've already touched on the fact that teams may be able to shut down the supply lines to both players if they can contain Noel in central midfield.
One thing that will cause problems for Santos and Municipal is the size, speed, and strength found throughout the Joe Public squad. They're a real threat on set pieces, and they'd also love to turn games into a series of 1v1 athletic battles. While Santos most likely will have too much of the ball to let that happen, Municipal could find themselves in a very unpleasant spot if they allow Joe Public to play on their terms. Even if Joe Public can't create much from the run of play, the threat from Tinto's set pieces is bolstered by having several big targets (Abu Bakr, Hislop, and defender Carlyle Mitchell are all 6'3" or taller) to aim for.
Projected order of finish:
1. Santos Laguna - Too much attacking talent for them to have any real worries. Despite being the weakest Mexican team, they have a shot at winning all six group matches.
2. Columbus Crew - Might not have the firepower to get ahead of Santos, but they should be far too good defensively and mentally to slip up against the others.
3. Joe Public - Going with my gut here. They should be better than one would expect when considering the history of T&T clubs in this competition, but they're probably not good enough to seriously trouble Santos or Columbus.
4. Municipal - They'll be tough at home thanks to what will be a choppy surface and a willingness to engage in the "dark arts," but they will struggle mightily on the road.