CCL: Group Stage Preview, Part 1
CONCACAF Champions League is coming! Before the group stage kicks off on August 6th, OTF’s Austin Fido brings the first installment of a two-part appraisal of ALL the teams involved…
Last year’s innovation of three teams per group continues in the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League. The upshot of that ingenious re-engineering of the tournament is that it’s ALOT easier for all of the Mexican and American teams to progress.
For a start, they are separated from each other in the group stage – only one Liga MX or MLS team per group. This very simple rule proved too perplexing for CONCACAF’s own officials, who needed to interrupt their televised draw to re-select groups after getting into a muddle: putting Houston in a group with Tijuana, and LA in a group with Cruz Azul. Those would have been fantastic match-ups to bring attention to the early stage of the tournament, but we’ll have to wait for the knockout rounds to see what sort of Liga MX vs. MLS contests might be on the cards.
Until then, we have eight groups of three to entertain us. Each comprising either a US or Mexican club, plus two others hoping to confound CONCACAF’s smug orthodoxy. A quarterfinal place is not assured for the representatives of the region’s richest leagues. There are some good teams, and very good players, kicking around the less-hyped leagues in CONCACAF. This preview looks at each group with the hope of identifying those which might yield more than a simple validation of pre-tournament expectations.
Put simply, I’m interested in “upset potential”: groups with a better than expected chance of producing a quarterfinalist from neither Liga MX or MLS.
The objective for any side to qualify is eight points: a total that makes it close to impossible for rivals to catch up. So two wins and two draws will suffice. Anything less and, as Chivas de Guadalajara found out to their cost last year, qualification could rest on the uncertainty of tie-breakers. Only the group winners advance, and one unexpected result can throw an erstwhile favorite out of the tournament.
In this post, the first four groups are addressed; groups 5 – 8 will follow.
GROUP 1: Deportivo Arabe Unido, Houston Dynamo, W Connection FC
Houston’s rivals in this group have recently spoiled the tournament for more fancied opponents.
In last year’s CCL, W Connection held Chivas de Guadalajara to a 1-1 tie in Trinidad – a result which contributed to Chivas’ early exit. In the 2009-10 tourney, Arabe Unido won a spot in the quarter-finals at Houston’s expense, though results between the two teams had little to do with it. The Dynamo thrashed the Panamians 5-1 in Houston, drew 1-1 in Panama, but were ultimately knocked out by a 3-2 loss to Isidro Metapan on the last day of the group stages.
Nonetheless, despite a congested fixture list (tune in for a later post about that), Houston Dynamo would appear to have one of the easier paths to the quarterfinals. Arabe Unido’s early league form (one point from three games) has been unconvincing. At least the Panamanians have had a few competitive matches, the TT Pro League hasn’t started yet, so W Connection is a team very much in pre-season mode.
Blessed with a stronger squad on paper, and a more battle-hardened team in reality, Dominic Kinnear will expect his Dynamo to handle these opponents with some comfort.
UPSET POTENTIAL: LOW
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Arabe Unido: Orlando Rodriguez
Back in the 2009-10 tournament, when Expreso Azul made it to the quarterfinal stage, Rodriguez was the second-highest scorer in the competition.
He is a consistent goal scorer in Panamanian domestic football, to which he has recently returned from a brief spell with El Salvador’s Alianza FC.
Houston Dynamo: Brian Ownby
He is on loan to USL Pro league-leaders Richmond Kickers until mid-September, but he should be available for Houston’s last two CCL group stage fixtures. Ownby has been one of the more successful MLS-USL loans this year: five goals and five assists in his first 17 appearances for Richmond. If he gets a chance in CCL, it will be interesting to compare the ability of an American lower-league standout to some of the region’s better club players.
W Connection: Joevin Jones
He’s an attacking left back for his country, and a very attacking midfielder for his club. Playing a more advanced position than he does at the international level, Jones scored 10 goals for W Connection in last season’s TT Pro League. Should he produce such form in CCL, he might be able to persuade his national team manager to allow him a more attacking role for the Soca Warriors.
Group 2: Club Deportivo Olimpia, Sporting Kansas City, Real Esteli FC
Both Nicaragua’s Real Esteli and seemingly perennial Honduran representatives C.D. Olimpia were in CCL last year. Neither got out of their respective groups, but the Nicaraguans came very close to beating UANL Tigres, and Olimpia drew at home and away with the Dynamo. These clubs are potentially stubborn opponents for Sporting Kansas City, who must balance trips to Nicaragua and Honduras with five increasingly significant MLS matches during August.
Were it not for KC’s impressive squad depth, the upset potential would be high in this group. Real Esteli might prove little more than a nuisance, but C.D. Olimpia boasts a squad that provided the spine of Los Catrachos’ Gold Cup semi-finalist team.
Sporting Kansas City has enough quality in the ranks to go toe-to-toe with the Hondurans, even if Peter Vermes leaves his first-teamers at home, but there’s still a decent chance the MLS club finishes August with just one point from two matches in CCL. And that would put some unwelcome pressure on Kansas City’s squad rotation if the Eastern Conference playoff race is still tight toward the end of the season.
UPSET POTENTIAL: MODERATE
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
C.D. Olimpia: Alex Lopez
In Honduras’ recent Gold Cup quarterfinal, Lopez supplied the cross that found Andy Najar for the winner over Costa Rica. He is a highly rated attacking midfielder, who has attracted interest from clubs in Europe and MLS over the past couple of years. He’s only 21, but another impressive display in CCL could finally trigger the move abroad for which he seems destined.
Real Esteli: Elmer Mejia
The veteran Honduran midfielder has played for Real Esteli for almost a decade, accumulating more than 100 goals for his club.
Sporting Kansas City: Teal Bunbury
The striker has fallen a long way down the depth chart in KC since last year’s ACL injury. CCL could be Bunbury’s chance to demonstrate the talent that put him on USMNT’s radar has not diminished.
Group 3: Club Sport Herediano, Cruz Azul FC, Valencia FC
Cruz Azul‘s Liga MX season has not started well: just one win from their first four matches. However, there is time to find improved form before their opening CCL fixture (against Herediano on August 22nd). The problem is not so much current form, as the fact this group could effectively be a playoff between La Máquina Cementeria and C.S. Herediano.
Haiti’s Valencia did supply a couple of players to Les Grenadiers’ impressive Gold Cup squad, including starting ‘keeper Frandy Montrevil. Still, it is hard to shake the impression that Valencia will be swept side by the other teams in the group. And if the Haitians are pushovers, it reduces Cruz Azul’s margin for error: points dropped to Herediano could be disastrous.
The Costa Ricans came unstuck against LA Galaxy in last year’s CCL quarterfinal (losing 4-1 in LA), but they got to the knockout rounds by taking four points out of six from Real Salt Lake. Herediano can be challenging opponents, especially on home turf — where Cruz Azul will have to play the final match of this group.
UPSET POTENTIAL: HIGH
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Cruz Azul: Joao Rojas
The core of Cruz Azul’s presumed best team is the wrong side of 30, but new-arrival Rojas brings proven attacking ability on younger legs. Legs one hopes will be fit to combine Liga MX and CCL.
Herediano: Yendrick Ruiz
A regular goal scorer in the Costa Rican Primera Division, Ruiz could use a productive stint in CCL to bolster his chances of joining brother Bryan in Los Ticos World Cup squad.
Valencia FC: Frandy Montrevil
Haiti’s national team ‘keeper is the most familiar player in Valencia’s squad, and likely to be one of the most active.
Group 4: Club America, L.D. Alajuelense, Sporting San Miguelito
Panamanian Clausura 2013 champions, Sporting San Miguelito, are stacked with young talent: ‘keeper Alex Rodriguez (22), defender Richard Dixon (21), attacking midfielder Darwin Pinzon (19), and forward Ricardo Clarke (20), are all players with the potential to make regular appearances for Los Canaleros.
Liga Deportiva Alajuelense will present a more seasoned challenge. Captain Patrick Pemberton was Costa Rica’s starting ‘keeper in this summer’s Gold Cup; Honduran forward Jerry Palacios was also in his national team squad for the tournament.
But neither squad looks capable of matching the quality Club America can put out: Adrian Aldrete, Miguel Layun and Juan Carlos Valenzuela were three-quarters of El Tri’s starting defense in Mexico’s ill-fated Gold Cup campaign; Raul Jimenez could be Chicharito Hernandez’s strike-partner for the September Hexagonal matches; veteran captain Aquivaldo Mosquera might make it into Colombia’s World Cup squad.
Individuals will bolster their reputations by showing well against the reigning Liga MX Clausura champions, but Club America should advance without much difficulty.
UPSET POTENTIAL: LOW
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Club America: Raul Jimenez
Such is his importance to his club and country, Jimenez could be rested for CCL fixtures. But the 22-year-old is one of the best young forwards in CONCACAF, so let us hope he plays.
L.D. Alajueluense: Patrick Pemberton
An international-class goalkeeper is an essential component of Alajuelense’s effort to get to the CCL quarterfinals.
Sporting San Miguelito: Darwin Pinzon
If Pinzon plays in CCL like he did in Panama’s Clausura championship final, it’s likely the 19-year-old will be gracing a foreign league by the time his 20th birthday rolls around in April 2014.
OTF’s Austin Fido tweets sporadically @canetop.