In my Group A preview, I said that I felt that group was the real CCL group of death. That should not mean that Group A is far and away the most difficult; I think Group C is very, very close to being just as tricky to advance from. It contains a club from each of the four biggest CONCACAF leagues, and each club enters the competition with legitimate expectations of advancing through to the knockout phase.
Despite that, the one thing you can always rely on in the CCL is that the Mexican clubs are always the favorites. In Group C, that means CF Monterrey will be expected to take the top spot. However, they're by no means guaranteed a stroll here, as each of their opponents in the group see themselves as having big futures as CONCACAF powers, and to make that step up they'll have to be able to go toe-to-toe with Mexican powerhouses. The demands from the fans and front offices of every team in Group C are for nothing less than advancing to the next round. As a result of that and the attacking talent found on each team, I think this will be the CCL's most entertaining group.
Read on to see who the big names are and how they'll influence play in what should be a thrilling set of matches:
How they got here: 2009 Apertura Champions (automatic berth)
Monterrey came in fifth place in the Apertura regular season, and eventually beat Cruz Azul 6-4 on aggregate in the Liguilla final. Los Rayados made a habit of getting results out of tight games in the Liguilla, as three of their four wins were by a single goal (to go with two road draws).
Key players: Humberto Suazo (striker), Ricardo Osorio (right back), Walter Ayovi (central midfield)
You may have seen Suazo appear for Chile in this past World Cup, though injuries kept him from being a permanent fixture in their lineup. While Suazo is fast and one of the deadliest finishers in CONCACAF, what makes him particularly dangerous is his ability to slip his marker. Suazo's something of a nightmare to defend, because he is good enough to create chances all on his own, yet most often scores by finding the slivers of space available in between otherwise well-organized defenses. Maybe all you need to know is this: Suazo's strike rate at Monterrey is 50 goals in 91 appearances, and that's down from how often he scored in the Chilean league.
Monterrey's defense was already pretty strong, but they still went out and added Ricardo Osorio, Mexico's first-choice right back, in the offseason. Osorio comes to Los Rayados after four years with VfB Stuttgart in the Bundesliga. Osorio is as steady as they come, though you might recall his disastrous backpass for Mexico in their 3-1 round of 16 loss to Argentina in this past summer's World Cup. He also returns to Mexican soccer at just 30 years old, so it's not like he's past it by any means. Osorio may not make too many overlapping runs down the right flank for Monterrey, but when he does he tends to create problems. More importantly, Osorio is rarely beaten by opposing wingers, forcing teams to find another avenue to attack.
Walter Ayovi is a name that might ring a bell; he featured for Ecuador during the 2002 World Cup. Ayovi has often featured as a left-sided player, but for Monterrey he plays centrally in a box-to-box role. A prodigious worker, Ayovi is the midfield engine for this Monterrey team. He drives them forward with purpose, while covering enough ground to allow the more attacking players to focus on their offensive roles. Paired with the experienced Luis Perez, Ayovi routinely helps Los Rayados dominate the center of the field. He's also quite the threat from set pieces, so opponents will foul in their own defensive third at their own risk.
X-factor: This isn't your traditional Mexican team.
Mexican soccer often features teams that encourage their outside backs to function almost as wingers, and there's usually at least one player who is required to do precious little defending. Monterrey, however, doesn't follow that pattern. Everyone on the field works to win the ball back when they lose it, and maintaining a solid shape defensively (either 442 or 4231) is seen as vital. Los Rayados function as a unit in both directions, so their goals usually involve multiple players getting a touch on the ball while their defense is rarely left shorthanded.
In depth: Monterrey has been the best team in Mexico over the past year; not only did they win the Apertura, but they also would have won the equivalent of Mexico's Supporters Shield if such a thing existed. As if that weren't good enough, they bolstered their squad with Osorio and got Suazo back after a short stint with Real Zaragoza of Spain's first division. In this case, the rich got richer.
Looking over the Monterrey roster, they most likely have the best starting talent in the CCL. However, there may be some question marks about depth if they opt to follow Cruz Azul's example and cycle their team. Even with those questions, Monterrey seems as strong a candidate to win this tournament as anyone. With all due respect to the rest of Group C, it would take Monterrey really letting themselves down for anyone other than the Mexican powerhouse finishing in first.
How they got here: 2010 Verano Champions (automatic berth)
Saprissa shockingly failed to make the Invierno playoffs, but returned with a vengeance for the Verano tournament. They topped the table in the regular season, squeezed past Santos de Guapiles in the semifinals, and then crushed AD San Carlos 7-2 on aggregate in the final. Thanks to having more points over the two seasons than 2009 Invierno champs Brujas FC, Saprissa got the group stage berth while Brujas crashed out in the qualifying round.
Key players: Walter Centeno (attacking midfield), Victor Cordero (center back), Douglas Sequeira (defensive midfield/center back)
Centeno, who will turn 36 in October, is a club icon for Saprissa. He has been present for some of their finest moments, including their 2005 third-place finish at the FIFA Club World Cup. No matter what formation coach Roy Myers (a name longtime MLS fans will recognize) chooses, you can be reasonably sure that Centeno will be in behind the forwards. Centeno doesn't have much of a goalscoring record, but that's not really his job. Where he excels is in getting close to the forwards and sending them in on goal through quick combination passes. Blocking off those passing lanes is critical to beating Saprissa.
In the back, the leader of the back line for El Monstruo Morado is Cordero, another veteran (he'll be 37 before year's end). While Centeno appeared to still have it in last year's CCL, Cordero left some big question marks with his performances. If Myers sticks with him as their starter (and, as captain, it seems likely that he'd start), Cordero will have to get the players around him to function as a tighter unit. While the Saprissa defense was not exactly flimsy last time around (8 goals conceded in 6 matches), it was also prone to giving away the sort of easy chances that kill teams. In a group with forwards like Suazo, Seattle's Fredy Montero, and Marathon's Claudio Nicolas Cardozo Labarinas, it'll be hard enough to keep clean sheets.
Most MLS fans will remember the final man on this list. Douglas Sequeira spent 2005 with Chivas USA and 2006 with Real Salt Lake. Neither club will remember those times fondly, in part because of Sequeira's struggles. As a defensive midfielder and as a center back, Sequeira was seen as overly aggressive, but his real issue was with anticipation. Not much has changed, as he still suffers from a tendency to be a step behind the play, which makes him a big question mark in the Saprissa midfield. If the Costa Rican giants are to improve on last season's third-place finish, Sequeira will have to think more quickly. With three teams that move the ball quickly in their group, Saprissa can't afford to have someone a moment too slow in the crucial defensive midfield position.
X-factor: Roy Myers
Saprissa has been something of a coaching litmus test. Their last two coaches were both tipped for big things. Hernan Medford went on to coach the national team, while Jeaustin Campos (after failing to make the Costa Rican playoffs) was fired and now coaches Puerto Rican league side Bayamon FC. Myers stepped into the role at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Ayma and lead his team straight back to where they feel they belong: A dominant regular season was followed up by winning the country's playoff system. Myers will also be quite familiar with Sigi Schmid, having played for Seattle's head coach during his days with the Galaxy (he also played for the Metrostars).
The domestic return to form engineered by Myers was impressive. However, drawn into a particularly difficult CCL group, he will find himself subject to the most trying examination of his young coaching career. Virtually the same group of players were in place last season as Saprissa picked up just five points (four of which came against the Puerto Rico Islanders, who finished last). Can Myers get enough out of what, by Saprissa standards, is an unimpressive group?
In depth: In last year's CCL, Saprissa struggled at both ends of the field. Despite having attackers like Centeno, Alonso Solis, and Jairo Arrieta, they managed just six goals (three of which came in one game). The lack of a true goal threat at one end helped contribute to their troubles at the back, where a weak defensive group could be exposed once teams became willing to push forward in numbers. Movement off the ball and trusting one another became major concerns, as it seemed too many players wanted to occupy the same spaces. With Monterrey and Seattle known for their ability to defend as a group, Saprissa will have to be much more coherent going forward to keep teams from pinning them in their own end.
One big historical advantage for Saprissa over the years has been their home, the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Ayma. This venue has earned a reputation for things like bags of urine being hurled at opposing players. While those days seem to be past, the place still has a fearsome reputation due to the proximity of the fans to the field and the low-quality artificial turf field (Seattle will not have an advantage playing there, because the turf at Saprissa is more like the old Giants Stadium garbage as opposed to the surface at Qwest Field). However, in last year's CCL Saprissa lost twice at home, falling 1-0 to the Columbus Crew and 2-1 to Cruz Azul. Saprissa will have to restore their home stadium's reputation as a fortress to get out of this group; I'd say they need to take at least 7 points at home to progress.
How they got here: 2009 US Open Cup Champions; 2-1 aggregate qualifying round win over AD Isidro Metapan (El Salvador)
Bet you haven't heard about this one. Seattle won last year's Open Cup 2-1 at DC United after verbal jousting between both front offices and fanbases. In the qualifying round, Seattle was somewhat unfortunate to only win 1-0 at home, but despite conceding early during the away leg, they steadied the ship and grabbed what turned out to be the winning goal via substitute Alvaro Fernandez in the 74th minute.
Key players: Fredy Montero (forward), Osvaldo Alonso (defensive midfield), Kasey Keller (goalkeeper)
Despite the addition of two starters from 2010 World Cup teams, the key attacking player for the Sounders is still Montero, whose recent seven-game streak with a goal or assist was a huge factor in Seattle's charge up the MLS table. With Nkufo looking like a decent compliment to Montero but not yet scoring at the pace one might have expected, and no true #10, it would appear that Montero will have to continue to carry the offense in terms of tangible results. Of course, the teams in Group C will be fully aware of the threat he presents, so he'll have to step his game up to another level to remain as effective.
As much as Montero matters to the Seattle cause going forward, Alonso might be the player Sigi Schmid relies upon the most in this tournament. Alonso will have to dictate the pace of games from his deep midfield position; if he can't control the tempo, there's a chance that Seattle could struggle for possession against all three of their opponents in this group. Being forced to chase these teams can be disastrous, so Seattle can hardly afford to be careless with the ball. If Alonso can help Seattle keep the ball while also doing his normal work breaking up passes and winning tackles, the Sounders have a real shot at getting out of this group.
Keller, as the leader and most experienced player at the club, will also play a huge part in whether Seattle can succeed in Group C. It's not just about his ability to make the big save (and he will be called upon to make them with regularity in this group). It's about whether he can take the lessons he's learned from playing in so many huge games and pass them on to the youngsters Seattle depends upon. Keller's role in the locker room and on the training ground, as well as his ability to calm his teammates within games, will be critical as the Sounders face down fixture congestion and some of the toughest opponents they've ever played.
X-factor: Alvaro Fernandez
Fernandez showed in the World Cup that he's probably as good a role player as you'll find in CONCACAF. He's not necessarily a star that dominates games, but you'll see him do his job and do it well game in and game out. When he came on against Isidro Metapan in the qualifying round, he lifted Seattle immediately. It wasn't just his well-taken header for the goal that pushed the Sounders through to the group stage. It was his presence of mind, his control, and his speed of thought. He's a well-rounded professional that Seattle will rely on throughout their time in Group C. No matter where Seattle uses him in their midfield, he's going to have to display all those qualities to provide a threat going forward while helping out defensively. I think the fact that Fernandez hasn't played that much in Seattle's system plays into Schmid's hands. Opposing teams won't be able to scout him or plan for his role within the squad, because he doesn't have an established role (and could play anywhere across the midfield).
In depth: There's real pressure in Seattle to succeed in this competition. However, Schmid will be looking at sixteen matches in the next nine weeks (and potentially one more, if the Sounders win their US Open Cup semifinal on September 1st). That's a daunting schedule for any club in the world; for an MLS team with just 24 roster spots, it can be downright brutal. Schmid will have to find a way to balance Seattle's ambition with the reality of the taxing schedule of games and travel that his club faces.
Certain players that he might be able to call upon in MLS (like Roger Levesque or Taylor Graham) may be in over their heads against the high quality competition they'll face in the CCL. On the other hand, there are only three points between the Sounders and finishing outside of the MLS playoffs. Can Schmid rotate his reserves into MLS play (particularly at home) without dropping valuable points? Is he willing to play the club's best players in the CCL, as Sounders fans would like? He might want to ring up Tom Soehn and ask him about how to strike a balance...well, maybe not.
How they got here: 2009 Apertura Champions; 4-2 aggregate qualifying round win over Tauro FC (Panama)
Marathon finished atop the Apertura table, but found the playoffs very tough. They got past Real Espana in the semifinals via a tiebreaker (their regular season position) before a 2-1 aggregate win over fellow CCL qualifier CD Olimpia.
Honduras gave their group stage spot to Olimpia on the basis of them having collected more points over the Apertura and Clausura tournaments, so Marathon was forced to go through the qualifying round. There, they advanced 4-2 on aggregate over Tauro, having essentially won the tie after a 3-0 win away in the first leg.
Key players: Mario Berrios (left midfield), Claudio Nicolas Cardozo Labarinas (striker), Erick Norales (center back)
Berrios isn't a huge name in CONCACAF, but rest assured: He's a dangerous player for Marathon. Playing on the left side of midfield in Nicolas Suazo's 3412, Berrios is defensively sound while still getting forward to create danger. It's not that Berrios is super fast, or even that he has an abnormal work rate. What makes him good is that he's a very smart player who consistently puts himself into positions that allow him to impact the game. He has admirable skill with the ball, but his best quality is what he does without it. Off the ball, he's a constant danger, and opposing right-sided players will have to be very sharp to shut him down.
Next up is the man with many names. CONCACAF has identified him as both Claudio Labarinas and Nicolas Cardozo (one of the "joys" of CCL play is figuring out who a certain player is, as broadcasters will often show inaccurate lineups; during the first CCL, there were at least three occasions in which Christian Miles of FSC insisted a player that wasn't even on the field was in fact out there). I'm going with referring to him as Cardozo, as that's his first surname and generally in Spanish that's the name you refer to. Anyway, Cardozo was brought in to replace the goals of departed striker Jerry Palacios. He scored three times in their qualifying round tie against Tauro, so he appears to be doing the job. I have to confess that I haven't seen him play, but it appears that the Uruguayan is Marathon's top goal threat.
Finally we come to center back Erick Norales, who despite being just 25 has played nearly 200 professional matches. Norales is often first-choice for Honduras as well, though he was surprisingly left out of their World Cup squad. Despite being listed as 5'11", Norales plays like a big center back and relishes physical contact. Out of Marathon's defenders, he's the one with the most CCL experience. As a result, he'll be called upon to be a calming influence, especially since they operate out of the high-wire act that is a back three.
X-factor: Can Marathon match their previous showings after multiple changes?
Big names like Jerry Palacios, Walter Martinez, and Guillermo Ramirez are gone, and their replacements are not particularly well-known names (even in the world of Central American soccer). Marathon had to be at their very best to get through to the knockout round in each of the last two CCLs, and this time around they might face an even harder task. If players like Reiniery Mayorquin (a substitute last year, but now starting in Ramirez's old attacking midfield spot) can't answer the call, things are going to be very difficult.
In depth: Like many Honduran clubs, Marathon possesses good team speed and will have no problem playing physical soccer. These athletic assets tend to make teams very uncomfortable, provided Marathon gets their way and sets an almost hectic pace to games. However, in last year's CCL they found it very hard to take that high-energy approach on the road. As a result, they gave up 12 goals in their three group stage road games, as well as 6 in their knockout round visit to Cruz Azul. Marathon will probably want to stick to a similar style of play, but they might consider playing things a bit more conservatively on the road as a result of those chastening defeats.
That contrasts to how they should approach their home games, as they have won every single CCL home match they've played against Mexican and MLS opposition. Having just opened their brand new stadium, Estadio Yankel Rosenthal, one can expect Marathon to defend their home turf with the same vigor as in past years. The stadium bears the name of the club president, who has driven Marathon upward in recent years to become arguably the country's most powerful team. There is a real desire throughout the Marathon organization to become the top club in Central America, and the CCL is the place to prove that. As a result, Marathon's coaches and players take this tournament very seriously, playing their best squads every time out. They've gotten through the group stage twice in a row, so they won't look at this group and get rattled. That mentality could be the difference in this group.
Projected order of finish:
1. CF Monterrey - As good as this group is, Monterrey's quality and organization should see them finish first rather comfortably.
2. Seattle Sounders - If Seattle answers the call of their fans to go after CCL glory with everything they have, they should be able to squeeze ahead of Marathon and Saprissa thanks to their defensive strength.
3. CD Marathon - Their experience, pride, and strength at home make them formidable, but it looks like they've let one too many big players go without an adequate replacement to go through for a third straight time.
4. Deportivo Saprissa - They won't be easy to beat by any means, but with a roster that relies on old timers and a coach with only a few months under his belt, this group looks like a bridge too far.