CCL: Group Stage Preview, Part 2

Contrary to popular belief, Humberto Suazo is not part of the CCL trophy. (photo: ferplei.com)

Contrary to popular belief, Humberto Suazo is not part of the CCL trophy. (photo: ferplei.com)

OTF’s Austin Fido brings the second half of his survey of the CONCACAF Champions League group stage …

Groups 5 – 8 of the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League don’t offer tremendous hope of any upsets, unless you think one MLS club beating another MLS club qualifies as a surprise. Still, the pairing of Montreal and San Jose makes Group 5 the only one in this year’s CCL without a clear favorite. 

The other groups previewed here, however, appear to lack the necessary ingredients for a challenge to the presumed supremacy of Liga MX and MLS clubs in this competition. But that simply means a freak result will be all the more wonderful to witness.

Groups 1 – 4 are previewed here; for the rest of field, please read on…

GROUP 5: Club Deportivo Heredia, Montreal Impact, San Jose Earthquakes

image: commons.wikimedia.org

image: commons.wikimedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

Last year’s surprise quarterfinalist was Guatemala’s Xelajú, who knocked Chivas de Guadalajara out of CCL at the group stage.

There is another potential Guatemalan upstart in this year’s CCL, but it is not C.D. Heredia.

Comunicaciones won both the 2012 Apertura and 2013 Clausura championships — the qualifying events for Guatemalan teams to get to CCL. Heredia is in this tournament as the best-of-the-rest from Guatemala, which is not a compelling claim to advance from one of the tougher groups in this year’s tournament.

However, Group 5 offers perhaps the most interesting tussle in this stage of the competition: an all-MLS shoot-out between Montreal Impact and San Jose Earthquakes. Both teams should be expected to take the tournament seriously.

The Quakes’ new stadium will open in 2014. Although recent construction issues make it unlikely the new venue will be open for next year’s CCL knockout rounds, a decent run in the tournament would be a boost for a team that is flirting with missing the playoffs this year.

For L’Impact, the notion of mailing in their first CCL as an MLS club is surely unconscionable. Montreal’s fans were infuriated by a perceived lack of ambition when Marco Schallibaum sent a reserve team to lose in Toronto for the first leg of the Canadian Championship semifinals earlier this season. The club recovered to win the second leg (6-0) and, ultimately, the Voyageurs Cup — thereby securing Canada’s sole CCL berth. 

Recent struggles in MLS notwithstanding, one would imagine Montreal’s fans will not tolerate a half-hearted tilt at the regional title from a club they effectively bullied into getting this far in the first place.

Both the Quakes and L’Impact have bolstered their squads recently. Montreal’s new DP, 27-year-old Hernán Bernardello, looks like a long-term replacement for 33-year-old Quebecois superstar Patrice Bernier. Former Wigan defender Adrian Lopez offers some respite for aging center backs Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari. San Jose have added seemingly World Cup bound USMNT defender Clarence Goodson, journeyman left back Jordan Stewart, and Jaime Alas, one of the stars of El Salvador’s emerging generation of young talent.

On recent form, the teams appear closely matched. The Quakes have recovered from a dismal Spring in MLS to win three games in a row. The Impact, once the class of the league, have been stumbling — most recently suffering the indignity of losing to DC United. The journey from awful to OK has brought San Jose to roughly the same level as Montreal’s trip from imperious to indifferent.

Expect one of these two to progress from Group 5, with the overall winner most likely being settled by whichever club beats Heredia most convincingly. Since there is no surprise in an MLS team getting out of the CCL group stage, the upset potential for this group is low — but that doesn’t mean it won’t be closely contested.

UPSET POTENTIAL: LOW

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

C.S. Heredia: Robin Betancourth

Betancourth scores (photo: digital.nuestrodiario.com)

Betancourth scores (photo: digital.nuestrodiario.com)

Betancourth is one of several young strikers jostling to fill the void left in Guatemala’s national team by the near-simultaneous international retirement of Freddy Garcia, Dwight Pezzarossi and Carlos Ruiz. CCL has given him the gift of two MLS opponents against whom he might advance his reputation.

Montreal Impact: Justin Mapp

Only his hairline has receded faster than his USMNT prospects since leaving the Fire.(photo: mlssoccer.com)

Only his hairline has receded faster than his USMNT prospects since leaving the Fire.(photo: mlssoccer.com)

Despite Joey Saputo’s ceaseless efforts to transform Montreal Impact into a living Serie A throwback jersey, the club’s attacking spark comes from an MLS-lifer who was struggling to make the DC United first team around the time Alessandro Nesta was starting his first UEFA Champions League winning campaign.

Mapp fits perfectly into L’Impact’s cultured tactical plan, and CCL is his chance to show he can mix it with the bigger names in the region — if Montreal can beat the Quakes, of course.

San Jose Earthquakes: Adam Jahn

Pillow Feet (photo: sjearthquakes.com)

Pillow Feet (photo: sjearthquakes.com)

His nickname (“Pillow Feet”) is attributed to his soft touch, but the rookie big-man’s primary role on the team is to back up Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart. As such, he might more accurately be tagged “Baby Bash” — certainly, he’s learning to bruise, bump, and crash defenders from some of the best in that irksome business.

MLS referees cut San Jose’s goon squad a fair amount of slack, but CONCACAF officials may be less indulgent, in which case Jahn could add significant CCL minutes to his unexpectedly productive rookie season.

Group 6: Caledonia AIA FC, C.S.D. Comunicaciones, Deportivo Toluca FC

image: caledoniaaia.com

image: caledoniaaia.com

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

Despite looking the weakest of the Liga MX sides in this year’s CCL, Toluca should have little difficulty getting out of this group. The club plays its football around 8,500 feet above sea level — an altitude which will prove as daunting for regional opponents as the quality in Toluca’s squad.

Los Diablos Rojos haven’t been really good in Liga MX since Apertura 2012 — a full year ago. Their performance in that tournament got them into CCL, and they shouldn’t have to worry too much about handling their group stage opponents. But they will need to get their act together for the knockout rounds. 

The Caledonia AIA (“Athletes in Action”) squad is built around a core of Trinidadian internationals: young defender Aubrey David, midfielder Densill Theobald, and target forward Jamal Gay. All participated in this summer’s Gold Cup, so they should at least be fit. But an opening group stage match in Toluca is likely to set a dispiriting tone for their second consecutive CCL campaign. If they improve on the single point they got out of last year’s competition, the Trinidadians will have done well.

Guatemala’s Comunicaciones, the dominant club in their domestic league over the last 12 months, can challenge Toluca, not least because the schedule doesn’t send Los Cremas to Mexico until the last match of the group stage. This is a team which has won back-to-back Guatemalan championships, losing just six of 44 regular season games during that run. Los Cremas have reason to be optimistic, and recent history is on their side.

Xelajú, last year’s Guatemalan quarterfinalists, beat Liga MX opponents to the knockout rounds by defeating Chivas de Guadalajara at home, and because Trinidadian group-mates W Connection took points off everyone who came to Trinidad. Comunicaciones should expect no such help from Caledonia AIA, but they can consider themselves better than Xelajú was last year. 

Unfortunately, Toluca in 2013 will be a tougher proposition than Chivas in 2012.

UPSET POTENTIAL: LOW

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Caledonia AIA: Jamaal Smith

Football is a serious business (photo: concacaf.com)

Football is a serious business (photo: concacaf.com)

The Canadian-born, Guyana international defender has returned from a stint with Syrianska in Sweden’s second tier to play CCL. He’s 25, and his dual-nationality may catch the attention of MLS’s north-of-the-border clubs if he shows well in the group stages.

CSD Comunicaciones: Elias Vasquez

What might have been (photo: prensalibre.com.gt)

What might have been (photo: prensalibre.com.gt)

Chicago Fire took a good long kick at the 21-year-old defender’s tires this summer, but ultimately he returned to Guatemala. If he does well in CCL, he could be trying out for more MLS clubs shortly.

Toluca: Isaac Brizuela

You missed this one, Jürgie (photo: centraldeportiva.com)

You missed this one, Jürgie (photo: centraldeportiva.com)

A lithe, speedy winger who this year followed a breakout season for Atlas with the revelation that he was American-born, and thus USMNT-qualified. His first caps for El Tri soon followed. He’s still a long shot to make Mexico’s final 23 for the World Cup, but he’s inserted himself into the conversation. Now his on-field performances need to match his off-field savvy.

Group 7: C.D. Luis Ángel Firpo, Club Tijuana, C.D. Victoria

image: xolos.com.mx

image: xolos.com.mx

Club Tijuana is adjusting to life without charismatic head coach Antonio Mohamed. ‘El Turco‘ led his Xolos to the Apertura 2012 championship title, and on a thrilling tilt at Copa Libertadores that finished with a last-minute missed penalty in Bela Horizonte. Atletico Mineiro went on to win the tournament; Mohamed went home to Argentina.

It isn’t clear whether new coach Jorge Almiron will be able to inspire the squad to reach the heights scaled under El Turco’s  leadership. But there is a a lot of exciting talent in this squad: 23-year-old Ecuadorian Fidel Martinez was one of the stars of the club’s Copa Libertadores run; newcomer Dario Benedetto bagged a hat-trick in his Liga MX debut; USMNT World Cup squad hopefuls Edgar Castillo, Joe Corona, and Herculez Gomez are all in Tijuana. And there are a cluster of young Americans who may yet develop into international players by the 2018 World Cup (Paul Arriola, Greg Garza, Alejandro Guido).

The border town has long been overrun by American youth, but this project promises something more positive than a hangover and some regrettable photographs. As such, this is the one group in which I am actively rooting against the upset.

El Salvador’s Luis Ángel Firpo‘s worthy squad of Salvadoran Premier League stalwarts doesn’t hold the same attraction for the tournament as Club Tijuana. The other team in the group, C.D. Victoria, only made it into CCL as the most consistent of all the teams in Honduras that couldn’t beat Olimpia last year. Neither of these teams look possessed of the quality necessary to take down Xolos.

UPSET POTENTIAL: LOW

PLAYERS TO WATCH: 

C.D. Luis Ángel Firpo: Jeremie Lynch

Confetti claims another victim (photo: culebritamacheteada.com)

Confetti claims another victim (photo: culebritamacheteada.com)

The 22-year-old Jamaican striker is on a six month loan with Firpo, which will hopefully bring CCL minutes. He is on the fringes of his national squad, and will need to force his way into Los Pamperos first team to get the starting role for the Reggae Boyz he is clearly seeking.

Club Tijuana: Paul Arriola

Not the first American to enjoy life in Tijuana (photo: mlssoccer.com)

Not the first American to enjoy life in Tijuana (photo: mlssoccer.com)

In his first season as a pro, 18-year-old Arriola has made a productive start: setting up two goals in two substitute appearances for Tijuana in Liga MX. It’s very early days in his career, but he could be the next attacking midfielder out of Texas to make a name for himself in a foreign league.

C.D. Victoria: Diego Ramos

Who can say no to chocolate milk? (photo: laprensa.hn)

Who can say no to chocolate milk? (photo: laprensa.hn)

The 2011 NJCAA Player of the Year, Ramos is a long way from Darton College (Albany, GA), where he spent two successful seasons. If he plays in CCL, he’s done well. If he starts, he’s massively outperforming expectations.

Group 8: A.D. Isidro Metapán, C.S. Cartaginés, LA Galaxy

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

Perhaps it was being drawn into a relatively weak CCL group which convinced LA Galaxy to sign up for International Champions Cup. Although it’s a friendly tournament, three games in a week pushes the Galaxy’s August schedule to eight fixtures, to be followed by another six in September. Let there be no complaining about fixture congestion out of LA over the next few months — any problems are self-inflicted.

Still, Bruce Arena has done a good job — yet again — of getting his younger players first-team minutes. The team is not dependent on Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, having learned to win with Gyasi Zardes, Jose Villarreal, Hector Jimenez and Jack McBean. Nor is the club overly reliant on youth: recent additions Laurent Courtois, Pablo Mastroeni and Jaime Penedo are all veterans.

As long as they aren’t too tired, Bruce Arena’s men will be confident of handling Isidro Metapán, a team they twice beat in the CCL group stage last year. The Salvadorans have qualified for every CONCACAF Champions League since the tournament was restructured and renamed, but they have just one win over MLS opposition in that time: a 3-2 win over Houston Dynamo back in the 2009-10 group stages.

For Cartaginés, simply getting to CCL is an unexpected bonus for finishing second in Costa Rica’s 2013 Verano championship. The Costa Ricans are occupying the spot in the competition that will one day be awarded to a team from Belize, if any of its clubs ever finds a stadium to meet CONCACAF’s requirements. Until then, the extra place is awarded to the Central American nation with the best performing club in the previous year of CCL. Herediano’s run to the 2012-13 quarterfinals is the reason why Cartaginés is here.

The third-best Costa Rican team in the tournament and a team with a consistent record of failure against MLS sides: these are probably not the opponents required to make Galaxy regret overburdening their fixture list with meaningless games.

UPSET POTENTIAL: LOW

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

A.D. Isidro Metapán: Hector Ramos

Hector 'Pito' Ramos (photo: futbolsv.com)

Hector ‘Pito’ Ramos (photo: futbolsv.com)

The 23-year-old Puerto Rico international scored twice in Los Jaguares season opening 3-3 draw. If he can make a name for himself as a goal scorer in CCL, there may be bigger clubs in the region chasing him after Isidro Metapán’s seemingly inevitable group stage exit.

C.S. Cartaginés: Randall Brenes

Third time lucky? (photo: cartagines.net)

Third time lucky? (photo: cartagines.net)

He doesn’t always play in Costa Rica, but when he does, he prefers Cartaginés. The pattern of Brenes’s career to date has been scoring lots of goals in Costa Rica, then moving abroad to score less frequently. He is in his third stint at Cartaginés, having returned last year from a brief, unhappy stint in Azerbaijan.

LA Galaxy: Gyasi Zardes

Extravagantly coiffed, extravagantly talented (image: mlssoccer.com)

Extravagantly coiffed, extravagantly talented (image: mlssoccer.com)

Zardes is pretty much a bona-fide starter for LA Galaxy, regardless of who is fit, so he may not see much time in CCL if Bruce Arena decides to keep his first team fresh for MLS. But he should be able to handle two games a week at this stage in his career, and one assumes Arena — having foisted all those August friendlies on his team — agrees.

OTF’s Austin Fido will be emphatically supporting the underdogs in CCL @canetop.

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