CCL: Group Stage, Round 4 Roundup
OTF’s Austin Fido recaps the latest round of CONCACAF Champions League action, and offers a prediction for the knockout rounds…
After four rounds of CONCACAF Champions League group matches, the dream of four MLS clubs joining four Liga MX sides in the quarterfinals is alive and well. Of the Mexican teams, only América has suffered any serious challenge to their progress to the knockout rounds, but (probably) having to win your last home game is hardly a crisis. MLS has suffered a casualty: Montreal was effectively eliminated in this round, after losing a little too heavily to San Jose. However, a blow to L’Impact is a boost for the ‘Quakes — now favorites to progress from Group 5.
There is still time for an upset or two: if Heredia can take a point in Montreal next week, San Jose needn’t bother to show up for the last game of Group 5; Alajuelense could ambush Las Águilas at Azteca; Houston cannot afford to slip up in their remaining matches. Nonetheless, in every group a representative of the region’s big leagues is still the favorite.
As such, attention can now be turned to the specific quarterfinal match-ups likely to emerge from the group stage. It is almost certain that, if they progress, San Jose will be the bottom seed in the knockout rounds. The ‘Quakes are mathematically incapable of securing more than six points, a record low for a group winner in the tournament’s nascent three-teams-per-group format. At the other end of the pool of potential quarterfinalists, the top seed appears destined for either Cruz Azul or Toluca, both still chasing maximum points, and likely to do so with plenty of goals.
Here’s a preliminary forecast of the quarterfinal seedings, based on an entirely unscientific appraisal of the remaining matches:
1. Toluca: Los Diablos Rojos need just one win at home by three goals to secure maximum points and a double-digit goal difference.
2. Cruz Azul: La Maquina Cementera could leap over Toluca by closing out their group with two big wins, but a trip to Herediano may hinder their ability to load up on goals.
3. Sporting Kansas City: a 2-0 home win over Olimpia would leave KC with 10 points and a +6 goal difference.
4. Tijuana: Los Xolos have blown hot and cold in front of goal in the group stage, suggesting they won’t get enough goals in their remaining match to edge past KC.
5. América: mathematically, the best Las Águilas can hope for is nine points.
6. LA Galaxy: The Supporters’ Shield race is, understandably, going to take priority over maximizing their seeding in CCL. Despite the distraction, LA will get to the knockout rounds, but probably at the expense of the points and goals necessary to be among the best ranked qualifiers.
7. Houston: this team has made its reputation on doing what is needed to get by, and there is sufficient experience and quality in the squad to get eight points, thereby winning their group.
8. San Jose: if they make it, the ‘Quakes will have six points, and it’s hard to see any other team progressing with such a low total.
For the quarterfinals, the top seed will play the lowest seed, second plays seventh, and so on. Look for an updated forecast in the next roundup (next week), and read on for news of the matches which informed the speculation above.
GROUP 1: W Connection 0 – 2 Árabe Unido
A scrappy match saw Árabe Unido become the first team to beat W Connection in Trinidad in CCL since Comunicaciones back in the 2009-10 edition of the competition. Incidentally, that was the same tournament in which Árabe Unido pipped Houston Dynamo to the quarterfinals.
This result eliminated W Connection from this year’s CCL, and ensured the Group 1 winner will be decided in the last round of the group stage, in Panama, when Houston travel to face Árabe Unido.
Next Match: 9/25 – Houston Dynamo v W Connection
In MLS, Houston is in a dogfight to make the playoffs, which makes it all but certain this CCL match (which can neither confirm nor deny quarterfinal qualification) will be treated more as a nuisance than a privilege. For W Connection, it will be the last CCL appearance for at least a year, since the club is not one of the Trinidadian teams slated to compete in next year’s Caribbean Football Union Championship, the CCL qualifying tournament for Caribbean sides.
GROUP 2: Sporting Kansas City 1 – 1 Real Estelí
Much like in their prior group stage games, Sporting Kansas City named a strong lineup, dominated possession, and created several decent chances to score. Unlike their previous efforts, the goals didn’t come quite so easily for KC, despite enjoying home advantage for the first time in this tournament.
In part, KC’s difficulties were owed to the fact that Real Estelí is a better team now than it was back in August. The Nicaraguan Primera División is in full swing, and El Tren del Norte is close to full steam: seven wins from eight games played; top of the league; 17 goals scored, just three conceded. Justo Lorente, Estelí’s ‘keeper, is a 19-year-old rookie, but he played extremely well — but for one tragic misjudgment which allowed Jacob Peterson to bundle an ugly equalizer into the net.
Sometimes, the ball just won’t go in the net. Peter Vermes doesn’t want to see his team need a goalkeeping error to get a goal from 66% possession and double-digit scoring chances, but the result vindicates the manager’s approach to this competition. He has consistently picked a team and tactics designed to win three points from every game, and the success of that strategy is why KC can afford to drop a couple of points at home.
Real Estelí salvaged some pride with this result, but were also officially eliminated from contention for the quarterfinals. The MLS club is still favorite to progress from this group.
Next Match: 9/24 – Olimpia vs. Real Estelí
Events in Kansas City don’t have much effect on Olimpia’s plans, this is a game Los Leones must not lose. And regardless of whether they win or draw, they will travel to Sporting Park needing to beat their MLS opponents to qualify for the knockout rounds.
Los Leones are early season leaders in the Honduran Liga Nacional, and will be confident of overcoming their Nicaraguan counterparts. Of course, Kansas City were similarly confident, and Real Estelí would surely love to leave the tournament on a high note.
So there’s plenty at stake in terms of regional rivalries, but not so much for anyone monitoring the progress of MLS clubs in CCL. This game is essentially irrelevant to Sporting Kansas City, who — be it for qualification or a higher seed in the quarterfinals — simply want to win their next match and move forward.
GROUP 3: Herediano 4 – 2 Valencia
Haiti’s Valencia has been one of the most entertaining teams in CCL this year, committed to playing attacking, up tempo, short passing football. It’s a lot of fun to watch, not least because the Haitians turn the ball over a lot, ensuring an abundance of chances at both ends of the pitch.
Herediano sent out a second-string: literally not one of the players who started the league game preceding this match was in the line up kicking off against Valencia. This didn’t look a bad decision when the fresh-legged reserves nabbed two goals in the opening ten minutes, but the Haitians aren’t easily cowed. Yes, Herediano probably should have scored eight on the night, however, Valencia had at least four quality chances for goals of their own.
The visitors never looked likely to win this game, but they were a constant threat to score — or concede. Their third loss eliminates the Haitians from CCL, however, they may have taken Herediano down with them. The goals Valencia scored effectively killed off the Costa Ricans’ chance of surpassing Cruz Azul’s group stage goal difference. Consequently, Herediano will need to beat La Maquina Cementera by four goals on October 22nd in order to make the quarterfinals.
Next Match: 9/24 – Cruz Azul vs. Valencia
As with every prior match they’ve played in this tournament, expect Valencia to lose. Despite the apparent inevitability of the result, this should be one of the better matches to watch in CCL’s fifth round of group play.
GROUP 4: América 3 – 0 Sporting San Miguelito
Las Águilas finally got a score line to reflect the dominant performances they have been putting in to date in CCL. A lack of finishing had put América in an unexpectedly precarious position: a three-way tie at the halfway point of the group stage.
Coach Miguel Herrera dropped Raul Jiménez into the line up, and the big striker proved the difference between the two sides. Sporting San Miguelito had chances, but couldn’t finish them; Jiménez scored twice, and set up Andrés Andrade for América’s third.
The win helps Las Águilas’ goal difference, but they will likely need to beat Alajuelense in the final group match, since the Costa Ricans otherwise have the edge in tiebreakers between the two teams.
Next Match: 9/26 – Alajuelense vs. Sporting San Miguelito
Alajuelense will want a big win at home over Sporting San Miguelito, both to avenge the loss suffered in Panama and to wipe out América’s goal difference advantage over their group rivals. It would also allow the Costa Rican side to travel to Azteca needing just a point to progress to the quarterfinals.
For their part, Sporting San Miguelito’s hope of progressing beyond the group stage depends on the unlikely coincidence of a big win in Costa Rica and América losing heavily to Alajuelense in Mexico. To believe in that combination of results, your optimism doesn’t just need to be blind, it needs to be lobotomized.
GROUP 5: San Jose Earthquakes 3 – 0 Montreal Impact
On the subject of lobotomized optimism, there appears to be a reluctance in some circles (looking at you, mlssoccer.com) to concede Montreal’s 3-0 loss to San Jose has effectively bounced L’Impact from CCL.
CONCACAF’s primary tiebreakers for this tournament are results between the teams involved — and San Jose has the edge on goal difference over Montreal on that front. Should the ‘Quakes beat Heredia by multiple goals, they’ll also own the tiebreaker with Los Jaguares.
The only scenario in which L’Impact get out of this group involves putting at least six unanswered goals past Heredia in the next match (thus raising Montreal’s goal difference to +3), and having Heredia lose 2-1 (or 3-2, or 4-3) to San Jose — thereby giving Heredia the tiebreaker advantage over the ‘Quakes. If I follow CONCACAF’s rules correctly, that would throw the final group standings over to overall goal difference, and Montreal would win.
Still, San Jose wins any head-to-head analysis of a tie between themselves and Montreal; and Heredia wins the group if they can avoid losing one of their remaining two games. So count L’Impact out of CCL. If Heredia prove so brittle as to give up six goals in Montreal, it’s hard to see them running the ‘Quakes close at Buck Shaw Stadium.
San Jose, however, are suddenly favorites to progress. The equation for the ‘Quakes is pretty simple: they need to beat Heredia at home in the final group match in October. They will know exactly how many goals they need, and they will (for the first time in this year’s tournament) probably be unencumbered by thoughts of MLS playoffs.
Come October 23rd, it’s likely a CCL quarterfinal is the only positive outcome San Jose can hope to get from this season. Such is the ‘Quakes home record, they should be considered odds on to get what they need from their final CCL group match.
Next Match: 9/24 – Montreal Impact vs. Heredia
This match is Heredia’s best chance of securing a quarterfinal place. Montreal’s chances of progressing in CCL are so slim, it would extraordinary if Marco Schällibaum risked his best — or even better — players for this game. L’Impact are still chasing Supporters’ Shield, or at least first place in the Eastern Conference; all CCL offers now is an opportunity for injury.
So Heredia will chase the point they need for an unlikely knockout round appearance against Montreal’s reserves. Should Los Jaguares fail, a full-strength ‘Quakes side will be waiting for them in October.
GROUP 6: Caledonia AIA 1 – 5 Toluca
It was all a little too easy for Los Diablos Rojos, whose languid dominance of Group 6 makes them current favorites for the top seed heading into the quarterfinals. Yes, they haven’t qualified yet, but it would be an extraordinary reversal of a hitherto unchallenged supremacy over their group stage rivals if Toluca were to lose by multiple goals at home to Comunicaciones.
Grenadian international, Kithson “Bully” Bain, scored on his debut for Caledonia, but the home team was never close to seriously troubling Toluca, whose second-string has been the class act of the group stage.
Next Match: 9/25 – Comunicaciones vs. Caledonia AIA
Comunicaciones’ slender hope of playing a CCL quarterfinal rests on winning this match, and then beating Los Diablos Rojos in Toluca. They should be able to manage the first part of that requirement, even if the second is likely beyond the capabilities of Los Cremas.
For Caledonia AIA, this CCL campaign has not gone well. They at least managed a point in last year’s tournament, but will likely end this group stage with four losses out of four, and quite possibly the worst record of any team in the competition. The Trinidadian side are one of the Caribbean sides eligible for next year’s CCL, and qualifying for that tournament is perhaps the best way to build on the chastening experience of this group stage.
Group 7: Luis Ángel Firpo 2 – 1 Victoria
Two second-half goals propelled Firpo past Victoria, preserving the Salvadoran club’s unbeaten home record in CCL matches (a sample size of six, but still notable).
This result eliminates Victoria from quarterfinal contention, thereby clinching a knockout round spot for Tijuana.
Next Match: 9/26 – Tijuana vs. Victoria
Fans interested in young US talent have long known about Tijuana’s stable of Yank prospects, but keep an eye out for Victoria’s Kevin Hoyos. The young forward scored against Firpo — a powerful strike from outside the penalty area — and he’s American.
Group 8: Los Angeles Galaxy 1 – 0 Isidro Metapán
Bruce Arena is a genius. First, he fired off one of his trademark grumbles about fixture congestion — singling out the fact that his Galaxy reached CCL match day 4 having only played one game. This moan conveniently ignored factors such as LA choosing to play an exhibition tournament while CCL was kicking off its group stage. More pertinently, perhaps, it also preempted criticism of Arena’s decision to field a reserve team for this match.
Presumably, LA Galaxy scouted their CCL groupmates, and may concluded that Isidro Metapán is one of the weaker teams in this year’s competition. If so, it would not be a particularly respectful opinion to broadcast to the media, which casts Arena’s “the schedule made me do it” comments in a more generous light: he was being tactful.
On the night, the Galaxy’s third-string line up handled Isidro Metapán, abetted by the mystifying incompetence of Los Caleros’ strikers. Nico Muñoz was joint top-scorer in last year’s CCL, but he posed no great threat to LA ‘keeper Brian Rowe. Laurent Courtois put the Galaxy ahead in the sixth minute, after which the match had precious few highlights.
Next Match: 9/25 – Cartaginés vs. LA Galaxy
The same fixture congestion issues Arena complained about this week apply to LA’s next CCL match, which is wedged between a visit from Seattle and a trip to Portland. The Galaxy know those two league games could have a defining impact on their season: should they win (or not lose) both, they cruise into three consecutive home games against Chivas, Montreal and San Jose. The Supporters’ Shield gets very close for LA, if they can get double-digit points from their next five games in MLS.
Furthermore, the Galaxy only need one point from their remaining two CCL group matches to qualify for the quarterfinals. Another reserve team is to be expected for a game LA can afford to lose. Conversely, Cartaginés must win or accept elimination from the tournament. These factors seem likely to combine to deliver a win for the home team and defer LA’s knockout round qualification to the final round of the group stage.
The fifth round of group stage matches will be played from September 24th to 26th.
Follow OTF’s Austin Fido as he mourns the departure of Sporting San Miguelito from CCL @canetop.