I thought I'd open with a quick comment on the difference between Columbus and Seattle from last night's games. The Crew showed admirable maturity in finishing off Joe Public. Going into halftime at 0-0 was probably a huge mental boost for the Trinidadian side, but the Crew were completely unfazed. A couple tactical tweaks later, and Columbus had scored twice in six minutes. The key was that they didn't lose their way even as their opponent seemed to have gained a foothold in the match.
Contrast that with Seattle, who started rather well in San Jose, Costa Rica. Even when MLS clubs have gone to Saprissa and gotten good results (specifically DC's 2-2 draw in 2008 and Columbus's 1-0 win there last year), there's always been an element of good fortune in it. Saprissa controlled possession and territory in both of those games. Seattle was actually edging the game in those categories in the early stages, but once Saprissa settled into the game things came apart. Leo Gonzalez, who should have functioned as a reliable veteran given the young lineup sent out by the Sounders (Fredy Montero captained the side!), instead went in on a high, studs-up challenge on a 50-50 ball in a situation that offered up absolutely no danger for Seattle. Ignore any claims that the foul was more clumsy than reckless; in CCL play, if you're an MLS player, you simply cannot go in for challenges like that.
Down a man, Seattle played valiantly, but there were simply too many gaps. Saprissa scored ten minutes into the half, but then took their foot off the accelerator and gave the Sounders a chance to climb back into the game. Montero did well to get his club a penalty kick from a play that was going nowhere (it's brain-dead moments like that that cost Gabriel Badilla his MLS career), but again a player that should have been a leader on the night failed Sigi Schmid's men. Osvaldo Alonso opted for power over placement on his penalty kick, and Fausto Gonzalez knew all along where it was going to make the save.
My point: MLS teams that succeed in this tournament will be the mature, composed clubs that get smart play out of their veterans. Columbus proved that they're a mature team with or without their star names, while Seattle paid the price for their immaturity.
Onto the rest of our Matchday 3 preview:
Deportivo Toluca vs. Puerto Rico Islanders
Toluca enters this game struggling a bit, at least by their standards. While they've only lost once all season (at Pumas UNAM), they've also managed just two wins in seven games. As is often the case when a team is getting draws instead of wins, the problem is up front. Toluca has just eight goals in the Apertura tournament, which is shocking when you consider the attacking talent (Sinha, Hector Mancilla, Nestor Calderon, etc) at their disposal. While their previous home game in this tournament - a 4-0 win over Olimpia - was a departure from that form, Los Diablos Rojos showed a lack of cutting edge in their 0-0 draw at F.A.S.
While the Islanders have gone above and beyond expectations in the CCL, they have been unable to do much of anything in Mexico. In three games, they've conceded eight goals and scored just one (in their penalty kick loss at Cruz Azul in the 2008-2009 edition's semifinal. Unfortunately for the perennial CCL underdogs, there's little reason to expect that to change tonight. Toluca may be spinning their tires a bit in the league, but they ripped into Olimpia with zeal. Combine that with Toluca's fitness and team speed, and it's hard to see Puerto Rico doing anything here beyond fighting valiantly and possibly snagging a goal. The Islanders won't be embarrassed, but this battle for first place in Group D is almost certain to go Toluca's way.
CD Arabe Unido vs. Cruz Azul
Arabe has functioned as a classic heel in the CCL, doing pretty much everything you can think of to earn the scorn of their opponents and neutrals. Dirty/reckless fouls, diving, feigning injury, overly direct play...it's been a smorgasbord as far as soccer's dark arts go. However, lost in all the justifiable criticism directed at the Panamanians is the fact that things are going pretty well for them in Group A. After two games, all four teams have three points and even goal differential. Seeing as how their final two Group A matches are at Cruz Azul and at Toronto (on October 23rd...hope your kit manager remembers to pack gloves!), their next two matches at home are virtual must-wins, especially RSL's visit on Matchday 4.
Cruz Azul enters this game in excellent form. They're in first place overall in Mexico, having won six of their seven matches and scoring over two goals a game to boot. They'll also feel pretty good about themselves in the CCL, having scored four goals in the last fourteen minutes to complete an astonishing comeback in their 5-4 win over RSL. However, they should be well aware of the threat Arabe poses on their home (artificial) turf. In last year's CCL group stage, the Panamanian champions defeated Pachuca (the eventual CCL winner) 4-1, and also crushed Isidro Metapan of El Salvador 6-0. They may not make any friends, and they may not have any big names, but Arabe does very well playing a frenzied style on the fake grass at their home stadium.
However, it's definitely worth noting that this is Cruz Azul's second visit to the city of Colon in 2010. In the knockout stage of the last CCL tournament, Los Cementeros got a hard-fought 1-0 win thanks to a 70th minute goal from Cristian Riveros. I think this game will be a slightly looser affair, in part because Cruz Azul at that time had a midfield that was heavy on work rate and light on skill. Compared to their current ability to call on players like Christian Gimenez, and it's really no contest. Look for Cruz Azul to start a B team, battle their way to a 0-0 draw over the first hour, and then turn the game with top-quality subs.
This is the match most MLS fans are focused on, for obvious reasons. It's the first time two MLS clubs have faced off in CCL play, and on top of that it will be TFC's first game since they fired Preki (along with GM Mo Johnston). For the home side, expect to see star playmaker Javier Morales go 90 minutes, as he is suspended for Saturday's home match against the Chicago Fire. Since anything short of a win would endanger RSL's hopes of advancing from Group A, I'd also expect to see regulars like Kyle Beckerman and Alvaro Saborio in the starting lineup as well. However, there may be regulars that are rested. Nick Rimando was left out of RSL's 0-0 draw at Seattle last week due to a minor Achilles tendon issue, while defenders Jamison Olave and Robbie Russell also sat out. Given the respectable play of their replacements (especially rookie center back Chris Schuler), I'd expect to see that group given another game off to heal up for the stretch run. It must be nice to have guys like Tony Beltran to call on in this kind of situation.
As for TFC...well, who knows? Jason Kreis admitted to having no idea what Toronto will do under interim coach Nick Dasovic. With all the talk of players and other coaches taking issue with pretty much everything Preki did, there's plenty of reason to believe that we'll be seeing a very different Toronto side at the Rio Tinto tonight. Then again, different is probably a good thing after being totally outplayed by MLS's worst club at home. While Dasovic is still stuck with an incoherently-assembled roster, I would expect him to send out a team that is more free to attack and is less focused on being the angriest team on the field at all times.
Given TFC's spot in the MLS standings, it's hard to say which tournament Dasovic will prioritize. On one hand, making the MLS playoffs is what all MLS clubs and coaches are ultimately judged on. On the other hand, Toronto is five points out of the last playoff spot. Compared to being tied for first in Group A, that's a pretty dire situation. You could make the argument that the CCL is Toronto's most realistic shot at accomplishing anything this season. Depending on how Dasovic and their front office feel about it, he could field his best team tonight.
CD Olimpia vs. CD F.A.S.
The final game of Matchday 3 sees Olimpia, surprisingly in last place in Group D, host F.A.S. of El Salvador. Olimpia's underwhelming play in the CCL is matched by their start to the Honduran season, where they are merely 2-3-1. To be blunt, this is simply not the Olimpia of the recent past. It's not just about the quality in the squad; it's mental strength. Previous Olimpia teams would not have been overawed at playing at Toluca, but this version looked like they'd have rather been anywhere but the Estadio Nemesio Diez and were down 2-0 after just ten minutes. There are some good players here, including youngsters like forward Roger Rojas and defender Johnny Palacios, but there's a lack of inspiration in the midfield that leaves them vulnerable (even in what is shaping up to be the weakest group in this year's CCL).
F.A.S. is another team that has left me unimpressed. They did scratch out a 0-0 home draw against Toluca, but that was as much down to playing on a soaked field during a never-ending downpour than anything else. F.A.S. is generally one of the biggest clubs in El Salvador, but a quick look at their national team indicates that this is a lean year for Los Tigres. Like Olimpia, there's a big lack of creativity in the midfield; captain Cristian Alvarez has the look and swagger of a playmaker, but it's often just a smoke-and-mirrors show. Goal-poacher Williams Reyes is their best hope, but the lack of service makes his job pretty tough.
At home, I'd expect Olimpia to be able to squeeze out a win here. However, since both teams are full of worker bees, I could see this game petering out and ending scoreless. The F.A.S. back four is well-drilled, and in Central America there's always the possibility of a poor field or bad weather disrupting a home team's attempts at attacking play. Nonetheless, I think Olimpia will find a goal somewhere along the lines in what could be a very ugly game.