The first two CONCACAF Champions League matchdays set the tone for each group. In groups B and C, the Mexican powerhouse in each grabbed the full six points and will now be poised to clinch their place in the knockout round in the near future. On the other end of the table in those groups, three teams (Seattle, Municipal, and Joe Public) find themselves entering do-or-die territory. A loss on Matchday 3 would leave each of those clubs in a nearly impossible position as far as advancing is concerned.
Meanwhile, Group A has been just as close as predicted, with each club on three points. While today's upheaval in Toronto would indicate that the Canadian representatives are going to struggle to do very much in their remaining CCL games, it will be a real battle between Cruz Azul, Real Salt Lake, and CD Arabe Unido in the chase for a spot in the knockout stage. Finally in Group D, the top sides face off Wednesday night, with the Puerto Rico Islanders hoping to turn the competition on its head with a win at Deportivo Toluca. CD Olimpia of Honduras will host CD F.A.S. of El Salvador in what amounts to an early knockout game between two sides with just one point.
Beyond the jump, we'll take a look at each of tonight's games:
Columbus Crew vs. Joe Public FC
Joe Public should not be underestimated, but they'll come into this match missing six players. Right back Jevon Morris and defensive midfielder Jason Springer both started in their 1-1 draw at Municipal, but will miss out due to suspension. Visa issues, meanwhile, have prevented Kareem Young, Andre Toussaint, Devon Jamerson, and Andel Noray from traveling. Of that group, Young is the biggest loss; he's started both group stage matches at center back, and played defensive midfield in both of Joe Public's qualifying round games. Toussaint is also a loss, as the striker gets regular minutes, whether starting or coming off the bench. For the Crew, Andres Mendoza is expected to get his first start for the club.
Even at full strength, Joe Public would have had a lot of trouble with Columbus. Stylistically, it's a bad match for them. Columbus can match them in terms of size and strength, and there's a wide gap in experience and soccer smarts in the Crew's favor. While Joe Public is no pushover (goalkeeper Marvin Phillip, defenders Carlyle Mitchell and Makan Hislop, midfielders Trent Noel and Hayden Tinto, and forward Kerry Baptiste were all in the most recent Trinidad & Tobago squad), anything other than a fairly straightforward Crew win would be a monumental shock here.
If Santos manages the expected win at Municipal later tonight, the Crew would have a five point advantage in the race for second place. While I'm not expecting Columbus to start their absolute best team, I do think they'll start Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Eddie Gaven in attacking roles in an effort to sink Joe Public early on. With a five point lead over Municipal and Joe Public, they'd be in a great position to rest players like Schelotto and Chad Marshall.
CF Monterrey vs. CD Marathon
Los Rayados are coming off a 1-0 away win over city rivals Tigres UANL, so they should be on a high. They sent their best possible team out for that one, so expect to see some reserves. Of course, when your reserves are guys like Jesus Zavala, Hector Morales, and Aldo De Nigris, the drop off isn't that big of a deal. Monterrey has started the Apertura season off very well, with four wins and three draws in their opening seven games. Their defense has been a bit loose by their standards (9 goals against so far), but they're more than making up for it on offense (15 goals scored).
In contrast to the stability present at Monterrey, Marathon will take the field at the Estadio Tecnologico with new coach Edwin Pavon in charge. Pavon, who is also apparently a member of the Honduran parliament, will have an awfully big challenge on his hands. Monterrey is arguably the best club in all of CONCACAF, and Marathon's last road game in the CCL was an embarrassing 4-1 defeat at Saprissa (a team that Monterrey thoroughly outplayed in winning 1-0; that scoreline was absurdly flattering to the Costa Ricans).
Given the upheaval at Marathon, you can almost bet the farm on Monterrey winning this game with ease, reserves or no. For El Monstruo Verde, this one is probably going to be an exercise in damage limitation. Marathon's -2 goal differential is already a liability in what looks like it'll be a very tight race for 2nd place in Group C.
Deportivo Saprissa vs. Seattle Sounders
This figures to be the best match of the day, with two evenly-matched teams that both need the points. Kasey Keller came out and admitted that a loss would kill Seattle's chances. A Saprissa win would leave the Sounders six points out of 2nd place with just three games to go (and they have yet to play at Monterrey, easily the toughest fixture in the group). As a result, Seattle has to approach this game with the same seriousness they had at Isidro Metapan in the qualifying round.
Saprissa has been underwhelming in the first half of the Costa Rican Invierno tournament, going 3-2-3 after three matches. They do, however, enter this match on a high after thumping Perez Zeledon 4-1 this past Saturday. That scoreline is also what they posted in their last CCL match, a game that saw them relentlessly push the tempo in the second half against an unprepared Marathon.
For Seattle, the key to this game will be surviving the hectic pace Saprissa likes to create. That pace comes partially from the artificial turf at the Estadio Saprissa, a surface Seattle has had plenty of practice on. If they can cope with the speed of the game, they'll have a platform to attack Saprissa's weak points. Fortunately for Seattle, those weak spots are at some crucial spots: Defensive midfielder Douglas Sequeira is a liability with and without the ball, and the center back pairing is the aging Victor Cordero and New England Revolution reject Gabriel Badilla. Saprissa hides these players by emphasizing their attack, but there's no way to completely cover over having your weakest links in key defensive roles. Seattle will get chances, and I think they've got enough firepower to get a draw as a result.
CSD Municipal vs. Santos Laguna
This is probably another mismatch, as Santos is sitting 2nd overall in the Mexican Apertura and can justifiably look at themselves as a potential winner of this tournament. Municipal, meanwhile, conceded a stoppage time equalizer at home to a ten-man Joe Public side in their last CCL match. Those dropped points will likely be crucial for the Guatemalans, who will now have to pull out a highly unlikely result (in this game or at Columbus) to have any chance of advancing.
Santos comes into the game off their worst performance of the season, a 5-2 loss at Queretaro. However, that loss came with regulars like Rodrigo Ruiz, Jaime Toledo, Francisco Torres, and Daniel Luduena on the bench, so perhaps Santos was looking ahead to this game. A win would give them nine points; coupled with a likely Columbus win, Santos would have a virtually unassailable eight point lead in Group B. I think they'll favor a similar strategy to that of Columbus; by using their very best players and winning, they can essentially take the last three games off and stroll to the knockout round.