CCL: Group Stage, Round 5 Roundup
In his latest review of CONCACAF Champions League group play, OTF’s Austin Fido is getting excited about a potential Clasico de Campeones…
It’s rare for any single club to have an undisputed claim to being the “best” from its respective nation. For every Celtic, there’s a Rangers; for every Barça, a Real Madrid. Similarly, the suggestion that either Club América or LA Galaxy is the “best” of Liga MX and MLS will meet strong dispute from fans of several rivals, not least Chivas de Guadalajara and DC United.
This is not, however, a great moment in the histories of either Chivas or DC, so their fans will have to accept the inevitable: an América vs. LA match-up will be billed as El Clasico de Campeones. The two most titled clubs in their respective leagues (hush now, Chivas and DC fans, we talked about this) clashing for the right to be considered king of the continent. Or CONCACAF Champions League semifinalists, because this Clasico could be a quarterfinal, if results go according to form in the final round of group matches.
LA will probably get maximum points from their group, but so too should Cruz Azul and Toluca, and the Liga MX sides have a goal difference advantage over the Galaxy. Unless LA outscores those rivals in the final round, they’ll have to settle for the third seed in the quarterfinals.
Las Águilas have to win their last match, but it is at Azteca, so they are heavy favorites. If Kansas City win their final game (likely) and Houston come out of Panama with a draw (not improbable), América will be sandwiched between the MLS clubs in sixth place in the knockout round seedings.
That combination of results isn’t inevitable, but it’s the outcome I am hoping for in the latest (and last) CCL seeding predictions:
1. Toluca: Three teams still have a shot at taking maximum points from the group stage, but Toluca is the only one with a home game left to play. Assuming all three contenders win their final match, Los Diablos Rojos should be considered favorites to take the top seeding on goal difference.
2. Cruz Azul: Quite likely to win their final game, but perhaps not so likely to outscore Toluca in the process.
3. LA Galaxy: The Galaxy’s reserve team is apparently unstoppable in Group 8. Twelve points beckon; securing best overall goal difference seems less feasible.
4. Tijuana: Six goals in their final match has supersized Los Xolos’ goal difference. Houston and Kansas City could match them on points, but either would need a lot of goals in their final match to match Tijuana’s scoring record.
5. Sporting Kansas City: KC should be expected to win their last group game, but winning by five goals (necessary because Tijuana holds the “goals scored” and “away goals” tiebreakers) seems unlikely.
6. América: It’s best not to get emotionally attached to predictions, but LA Galaxy vs. América in a CCL quarterfinal is a stirring proposition.
7. Houston Dynamo: In all of CONCACAF, it is hard to think of a coach who is likely to be less concerned about home advantage in knock-out tournaments than Dominic Kinnear. This is convenient, because his team labored to beat a drab W Connection side by two goals in Houston, making the notion of a six-goal win (necessary to leapfrog Tijuana) in Panama far-fetched. Indeed, even a win over Árabe Unido on the road might prove a little too much for the Dynamo. A draw and a low seed seem probable.
8. San Jose: Only the ‘Quakes can get to the quarterfinals with six points from the group stage. And if the ‘Quakes don’t make it, it’s likely Heredia will simply take their place as eighth seeds. Consider this the Group 5 slot in the knock-out round draw.
The action informing this speculation is summarized below:
GROUP 1: Houston Dynamo 2 – 0 W Connection
A disjointed match, in which neither side made great use of possession, received an undeserved highlight from Jason Johnson’s 40th minute golazo.
When the young Jamaican opened the scoring, it was as though the TV broadcast had decided to cut away to a different game: one illuminated by precision and panache.
Dynamo fans can start getting excited about a future team built around live wire talent like Johnson, but Houston’s present is more prosaic — as illustrated by Bobby Boswell’s insurance goal, which was a testament to the virtues of practicing set pieces.
Three points sends Houston to the top of the group, needing just a point from their last game to guarantee CCL play in the Spring.
Next Match: 10/24 – Árabe Unido vs. Houston Dynamo
The notion that non-MLS teams are somehow more inclined to engage in brazen acts of time-wasting to protect a lead than their North American counterparts doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. If you support a team in MLS which has ever been trailing in the last 10 minutes of a domestic league game, you know this. Árabe Unido, however, are the sort of team for whom the stereotype rings true — as they demonstrated repeatedly in their last match with Houston.
Thus, the Dynamo’s win over W Connection wasn’t just a boon to their knockout round ambitions, it was a boost to the prospects for this match. Árabe Unido need a win, and will (hopefully) play more positive football than they essayed the last time they played Houston.
GROUP 2: Olimpia 1 – 0 Real Estelí
Los Leones won this game more easily than the score line suggests. They had a lot of chances (20) and Estelí had very few (5), yet somehow the ball only found the net once.
They will be lucky to get half as many scoring opportunities in the Group 2 finale in Kansas City, but Olimpia’s quarterfinal hopes are still alive — which is all they really wanted to take out of this match.
Next Match: 10/23 – Sporting Kansas City vs. Olimpia
For Olimpia, only a win will do. For Sporting KC, a draw will suffice, which means this match could be left to their reserves. However, KC has taken a leaf out of the Liga MX Concachampions playbook, tending to select a team with a core of the best players available in the squad.
It’s the approach which has put Peter Vermes in with a very good chance of assuring himself home advantage for the quarterfinals at least, and it would be surprising to see him back away from that strategy now. Expect KC to pursue the win, and goals, they need to secure as high a seeding as possible for the knockout rounds.
GROUP 3: Cruz Azul 3 – 0 Valencia
Frandy Montrévil is good enough at goalkeeping to play for his country, but he has been something of a weak link for Valencia in this tournament. Not this time.
The Haitian national team ‘keeper saved a penalty, and kept the score within the confines of respectability. Valencia, as they have throughout the tournament, pushed forward whenever they could, but were up against a Cruz Azul side clearly determined to banish the memory of the near-embarrassment they suffered in the previous round.
Achille Emaná was the hero for La Maquina, bagging a hat-trick. Mariano Pavone was the most conspicuous victim of Montrévil’s inspired night: he couldn’t get anything past the Haitian ‘keeper, not even a penalty. Nonetheless, the win, and the goals, keep Cruz Azul in the hunt for maximum points from their CCL group.
Next Match: 10/22 – Herediano vs. Cruz Azul
The good news for Herediano is Frandy Montrévil’s stand-out performance allowed the Costa Rican side to hang on to their “goals scored” edge over Cruz Azul in Group 3. As such, they only need to beat La Maquina by three goals to progress to the quarterfinals.
The bad news, however, is the lineup Cruz Azul used against Valencia sends a pretty clear message: La Maquina intends to do well in this tournament. Against Valencia, the minnows of the group, Cruz Azul sent out Achille Emaná, Joao Rojas, and Mariano Pavone. It’s arguably the strongest attacking selection Guillermo Vázquez has made so far in CCL, and it underscored a determination not just to win, but to win big.
It’s likely Vázquez was trying to help key players find form against weak opposition, since Cruz Azul were held scoreless in three of the four Liga MX matches the club played since its last CCL outing. Still, the lineup also indicated La Maquina wanted to bolster their goal difference, and thereby their seeding for the knockout rounds.
If Cruz Azul carry similar motivation into their final game of the group, expect Herediano to be the team engaged in damage limitation.
GROUP 4: Alajuelense 2 – 0 Sporting San Miguelito
Alajuelense needed this win, and desperation appeared to be getting the better of them as the game edged past the hour mark without a goal.
Jerry Palacios finally found the net for Los Manudos in the 61st minute; Alejandro Alpizar added the insurance 15 minutes later.
This result sets up an intriguing final match day in Group 4: Alajuelense will travel to Azteca knowing a point will carry them through to the quarterfinals.
Next Match: 10/22 – América vs. Alajuelense
It’s been a while since Costa Rican clubs were truly competitive in regional football, but Alajuelense won this tournament (or at least, the “Champions Cup” equivalent) as recently as 2004. Should they hold Las Aguilas to a draw at Azteca, they will have knocked out the team many considered favorite to win it all, effecting a rather radical adjustment of perceptions of Costa Rican league soccer.
Of course, beating América at Azteca is not easy: Las Águilas haven’t lost a competitive fixture at home since May, and their last draw in front of their home crowd was in April. That may have changed by the time CCL’s final group stage matches roll around (América will play two home games in Liga MX between then and now), but it won’t change the fact Las Águilas are very good indeed.
Still, the home team has no margin for error; the visitors have every motivation to succeed. Alajuelense barely managed to keep América off the score sheet in their last meeting, and the effort to repeat the feat should be fascinating.
GROUP 5: Montreal Impact 2 – 0 Heredia
Heredia blew their best chance of progressing to the quarterfinals by failing to the accept the gift of Montreal’s reserve team chasing the delusion that a six goal win would get them to the quarterfinals.
Actually, I doubt anyone in the Impact organization seriously believed Montreal had a future in this tournament. This match was about L’Impact’s depth players proving they have a future on the team. Daniele Paponi and Andrew Wenger needed to demonstrate they could score goals, which they did. Wandrille Lefevre, Karl Ouimette, and Maxim Tissot needed to show they are more than just Francophone garnish on Joey Saputo’s totem to Italian football; which they did.
Heredia weren’t capable of getting a point against just about the weakest team Marco Schällibaum could select, and that doesn’t bode well for their chances of getting anything out of their upcoming trip to California.
Next Match: 10/23 – San Jose Earthquakes vs. Heredia
It’s a very simple proposition for San Jose: win and go through to the quarterfinals. Any kind of win should suffice, since the ‘Quakes would have the best overall goal difference in the event a one-goal win over Heredia throws the group into a three way tie.
Los Jaguares’ chances are slim. What we’ve seen to date is a spirited side, capable of surprising complacent MLS teams on home soil, but unlikely to trouble what should be a full strength ‘Quakes in San Jose.
GROUP 6: Comunicaciones 2 – 0 Caledonia AIA
Last time these teams played, Comunicaciones relied on the skills of Paolo Suárez to claim the win. This time, Los Cremas chose the more direct option, planting a couple of headers past Caledonia AIA’s hapless defense.
The manner may have been different, but the message was the same: the best team in Guatemala is better than the second-best team in Trinidad.
Next Match: 10/23 – Toluca vs. Comunicaciones
For Los Cremas to make the quarterfinals, they must win by two goals in Toluca. Los Diablos Rojos have lost at home a couple of times this season in Liga MX, but only by a single goal on both occasions. A thrashing at the hands of a capable but limited Comunicaciones side is unlikely.
More realistically, expect Toluca to progress from the group stage with a fourth consecutive win, and sufficient goal difference for the highest seeding in the knockout rounds.
Group 7: Tijuana 6 – 0 Victoria
Los Xolos were dominant from first to last: Paul Arriola clanged a shot off the post in the opening minute; Herculez Gomez narrowly missed knocking in a cross in injury time.
Between those moments, Tijuana ran rampant over a lackluster Victoria: they scored three (including one for Arriola) in the first half, then Gomez entered the game and got three by himself.
The headlines, at least on this side of the border, will go to the Yanks, but Emmanuel Cerda — who set up three and scored one — was arguably the man of the match.
More important than individual achievements, however, is the fact this massive win virtually guarantees Tijuana home advantage (i.e. hosting the second leg) for the quarterfinals at least. Ten points can be matched by Houston and Kansas City, but both sides need improbably large victories to overhaul Los Xolos’ goal difference. Tijuana should expect a minimum of the fourth seed for the knockout rounds.
Next Match: 10/23 – Victoria vs. Luis Angel Firpo
Nothing but regional pride to play for in this match, but pride counts for a great deal whenever Honduran and Salvadoran teams line up against each other. Victoria seek revenge for their loss (and CCL elimination) at the hands of Firpo in El Salvador, which should provide incentive for a lively game.
Group 8: Cartaginés 0 – 3 LA Galaxy
On paper, the Galaxy’s lineup didn’t look capable of getting a result in Costa Rica, against a Cartaginés team stocked with current, past, and (probably) future, international payers. Jack McBean? Chandler Hoffman? Rafael Garcia? FFS, Bruce Arena — take the competition seriously, we’re trying to grow the game here.
On the field, Galaxy’s reserve team of once-weres and wannabes crushed Cartaginés with an opening 30 minutes of high-tempo, exuberant football. McBean scored off a set-piece; Hoffman nabbed one with a nifty finish; Laurent Courtois added the coup-de-grace with a laser from distance. LA didn’t have a lot of possession, but they didn’t need it: Cartaginés couldn’t cope with an opponent that was direct and clinical in attack, disciplined and disruptive in defense.
The win sends the Galaxy through to the knockout rounds, and puts LA in the mix for a high seeding. Don’t let the fact they made it look easy diminish the performance: this was impressive work from a group of players on the fringes of the LA first team. They will surely get another chance to pad their highlight reels on the final Group 8 matchday, after which there will probably be a number of clubs interested in procuring the services of Arena’s second-stringers.
FFS, Bruce Arena — if you aren’t going to play them, set them free; we’re trying to grow the game here.
Next Match: 10/24 – Isidro Metapán vs. LA Galaxy
It’s safe to say Bruce Arena doesn’t lie awake at night pondering any record which doesn’t involve trophies, but the Galaxy could become the first MLS club to finish a CCL group stage without conceding a goal (and only the second — Seattle did it last year — to achieve four wins out of four).
The possibility of more first-team minutes, or renewed contracts, is likely to be a greater incentive for LA’s reserves, who will almost certainly be asked to finish what they started by closing out the Galaxy’s group stage with another big win on the road. As such, consider this match the one most likely to be watched by MLS general managers, keen to identify the talents they’d most like to see fall out of LA’s squad in the inevitable off-season reset of the salary cap.
The final round of group stage matches will be played from October 22nd to 24th.
OTF’s Austin Fido tweets less when CCL is on hiatus. Follow him @canetop.