CCL: Group Stage, Round 6 Roundup
OTF’s Austin Fido gives his view on CCL’s group stage denouement…
Now we have a tournament. The last round of group play brought two genuine upsets (Adiós América; happy trails, Houston) and a heavy defeat for a scarcely motivated LA Galaxy reserve team. The results have set up three Liga MX vs. MLS quarterfinals, and guaranteed one team from outside the region’s big leagues a place in the semis — Alajuelense and Árabe Unido will compete for that privilege.
This is good for the competition, which suffers in the US from the perception that it is either too easy or too hard for MLS clubs (haters gonna hate). Meanwhile, the Canadian, Caribbean and Central American clubs must suffer the indignity of being treated as second-class, forced to take the hardest possible route to the knockout rounds by being required to beat a Liga MX or MLS team to get past the group stage. Only Mexico is unabashedly aboard the CCL bandwagon, having become accustomed to watching one of its teams lift the trophy year after year (almost literally, one: Monterrey the last three years; Pachuca for three of the four preceding competitions).
Setbacks for América and Houston boost the achievements of those big-league teams which did manage to get out of their groups. Meanwhile, the presence of clubs from outside the Liga MX-MLS duopoly strengthens the tournament’s standing across the region.
For MLS fans, the quarterfinals should be fascinating. When an American (or perhaps Canadian) club wins CCL, no one will much care who they beat on their way, but this year each of the three remaining MLS teams are matched against one of the three remaining Liga MX sides. The USA-Mexico rivalry will once again get a proxy battle in CCL.
The tournament’s four-month hiatus between group stage and knockout rounds makes it imprudent to preview the quarterfinal lineups — the MLS clubs, in particular, will make some significant adjustments before March. Still, even from this distance, the matches look a treat:
1. Toluca vs. 8. San Jose Earthquakes: Assuming the ‘Quakes retain the core of their squad and playing identity, this is an intriguing match-up between Toluca’s elegant passers and San Jose’s bruisers.
2. Cruz Azul vs. 7. Sporting Kansas City: In their respective leagues, both these teams perhaps suffer from the perception they are good but not great — or, at least, not capable of quite reaching the summit of the playoffs. Even if they each win their league titles during the CCL hiatus, this match should be labeled the “battle of the bridesmaids”.
3. Tijuana vs. 6. LA Galaxy: This will be the quarterfinal attracting the greatest interest on the north side of the border. Both squads are (currently) brimming with present and future American talent: for Los Xolos, Paul Arriola, Edgar Castillo and Herculez Gomez; for LA, Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez and Gyasi Zardes — to name but a few. And it’s an Alta vs. Baja California rivalry match. Stories will be written about this game for the next four months.
4. Alajuelense vs. 5. Árabe Unido: Two teams regarded as having overachieved just by getting to the quarterfinals will duke it out for a place in the semifinal round. Alajuelense will take confidence from having beaten América to get this far; Árabe Unido know they need just one goal and a slow-moving stretcher crew to take down any team in the region.
There is much to look forward to, but here’s a quick look back at the final round of games which got us here:
GROUP 1: Árabe Unido 1 – 0 Houston Dynamo
For the first 45 minutes, this match was a dismal contest between two teams challenging each other to care less about the outcome. Overhit passes and shanked shots pockmarked the first half. The second half wasn’t much better, until José Gonzalez looped a header over Dynamo ‘keeper, Tyler Deric, and under the crossbar.
If you have watched Árabe Unido’s earlier games in this year’s CCL, you know a single goal is all the encouragement required for the deployment of an extraordinarily focused time-wasting routine. In the previous game against Houston, this willingness to stop playing football and start feigning injury handed the advantage back to the Dynamo. Árabe Unido had the lead in the 8th minute, but 82 minutes is a long time to outlast an opponent when you’re not really trying to play — the Panamanians lost, 2-1.
This time around, their goal came in the 61st minute, and La Furia Colonense gave a 30 minute master-class in ways to disrupt a game: the stretcher made a few appearances; multiple balls were thrown on to the pitch on a couple of occasions; every goal kick was a physical and intellectual challenge that required time to consider.
If the Panamanian national team possessed the same single-minded application to the game’s more cynical arts, Los Canaleros would be on their way to Brazil. Instead, Árabe Unido will fly Panama’s flag in the quarterfinals of CCL. The Dynamo have only themselves to blame: relying on reserves to do the job in the CCL group stage is a time-honored strategy for MLS clubs, but its success is not inevitable.
GROUP 2: Sporting Kansas City 0 – 0 Olimpia
A dominant performance from Sporting Kansas City in every respect except goals. The result was sufficient to send KC through to the quarterfinals, but the second consecutive CCL home draw will be a source of concern for Peter Vermes.
Not, however, concern over the quarterfinals. KC will be one of the few teams grateful for a four month break from regional competition. CCL’s hiatus can be a momentum killer, however, Kansas City seem to be decelerating. Since the surprising 1-1 tie at home with Real Estelí, Sporting have scored just four goals in six games, and have been held scoreless in three of those matches (including this one).
While Olimpia, like Real Estelí, were better than the barely-out-of-preseason side KC played earlier in the tournament, this was a match the home team would have won with just a little more sharpness in front of goal. Yes, Graham Zusi had a good goal called back, and Los Leones‘ ‘keeper, Noel Valladares, played very well — still, there were ample opportunities. Vermes left his first choice strikers on the bench, but this result adds to the suspicion that there is no forward in the squad in great form at the moment. The defense is solid as ever, but the attack needs to find confidence: not for CCL, but for the pending MLS playoffs.
GROUP 3: Herediano 1 – 2 Cruz Azul
Achille Emaná scored in the 6th minute, and spent the rest of the match trying to coax a goal out of Mariano Pavone. The Argentine striker hasn’t had much luck in this tournament to date, and his hapless streak continued in this match. Instead, his replacement, Jesús Lara, bagged the winner in the 89th minute.
Three points assured Cruz Azul of home advantage in their quarterfinal with Sporting Kansas City. The preferential seeding was presumably important to the Liga MX club, who fielded a lineup missing just two of the men who started the team’s preceding match — the Mexico City derby against América — despite the absence of any real danger of losing the group. Herediano needed to win by three goals to top La Máquina in the Group 3 table.
As any fan of MLS will tell you, playing the second leg of a home-and-home series is hardly a guarantee of victory. But it is an advantage: last year’s knockout rounds saw the higher seeded team win every match-up, including the final.
América’s shock elimination from the tournament leaves the position of Champions League favorite vacant, and La Máquina Cementera is my candidate for the role.
GROUP 4: América 0 – 1 Alajuelense
Credit to Alajuelense, they did it the hard way: progressing to the quarterfinals by beating América twice, thereby deposing not only the Group 4 favorites, but also a (if not the) favorite to win the whole tournament.
Nor was this a case of Las Águilas taking matters lightly. The starting lineup for their must-win Champions League group stage finale was the same as that which kicked off the Clásico Joven — América’s derby match with Cruz Azul — just four days earlier. But the tournament’s heavyweights proved heavy-legged, perhaps from the short rest, or maybe because of the rain which afflicted the match. Either way, Alajuelense scored and América did not.
The Costa Ricans are now unlikely favorites for the semifinals, matched against Panama’s Árabe Unido in the next round. Should they progress, they will be considered a long shot to make the final, but don’t forget how they finished their group – they beat the best team in Liga MX (Las Águilas are currently six points clear at the top of the Apertura table).
This result might have greater significance than simply determining a CCL knockout round qualifier. It is, of course, the second time this month that a Mexican team has played a Costa Rican side in a must-win match, and lost. América’s coach, Miguel Herrera, is the man tasked with guiding El Tri past New Zealand and into the draw for Brazil 2014. He named 10 players from his all-conquering club team to his first national team squad (for the pre-playoff warm-up against Finland) — all of them dressed for this match.
If the best team in Mexican club football can’t beat the third-best side in the current Costa Rican Primera División standings, what does that say for Mexican football as a whole? It is a troubling question for a nation whose World Cup hopes are pinned to the only Liga MX team to fail to get of its group in CCL.
GROUP 5: San Jose Earthquakes 1 – 0 Heredia
The ‘Quakes nearly blew it — Heredia had the ball in the net in the 85th minute, an equalizer which would have eliminated San Jose, despite their absolute dominance of this match. But the assistant referee made a good call, spotting a marginal offside, and the ‘Quakes march on.
San Jose almost mismanaged themselves out of this tournament, underestimating the competition and twice sending a reserve team to lose on the road. However, their home form, and a renewed interest in CCL as their MLS fortunes waned, rescued a place in the knockout rounds. Assuming this team isn’t put under new management and dismantled during the off-season, San Jose will be an interesting test for Toluca, their quarterfinal opponents. The current ‘Quakes don’t play graceful football, but they are perhaps the most awkward opponents MLS can put up against Liga MX clubs.
GROUP 6: Toluca 5 – 1 Comunicaciones
Los Diablos Rojos finished the CCL group stage with their second consecutive five-goal performance. They have been the class act of this phase of the tournament, as reflected by their maximum-points, most-goals-scored (15), record from four matches.
The top seed in the knockout rounds is their reward, although a quarterfinal against the robust San Jose Earthquakes is perhaps not the prize for which they had hoped.
Group 7: Victoria 1 – 4 Luis Angel Firpo
Salvadoran football is in disarray after the country’s match-fixing scandal brought down a generation of national team players. As such, perhaps Firpo had more to prove in this game than their Honduran opponents.
The Salvadoran club completed a CCL double over Victoria, salvaging some pride for a team (and by extension, a country) in need of a pick-me-up.
Group 8: Isidro Metapán 4 – 0 LA Galaxy
No, that is not a typo. LA Galaxy were thrashed in El Salvador, crushed by four goals in twelve minutes scored by Nicolás “NicoGol” Muñoz in the first half. His fourth was a thing of beauty, a roundhouse kick with his back to goal which floated the ball past the Galaxy ‘keeper, Brian Rowe.
LA didn’t need anything out of this match to progress, as reflected by their play. Bruce Arena fielded the same reserve team lineup which had won its first three CCL matches by an aggregate score of 6-0, so one should hesitate to suggest the players weren’t up to the job of competing with Metapán. Perhaps the squad’s preparations were not helped by their coach’s penchant for moaning about this tournament and its impact on the fixture list (conveniently ignoring the Galaxy’s passion for scheduling mid-season exhibition matches that conflict with CCL match days).
Or perhaps Los Caleros simply have sufficient quality and professionalism to humble complacent opposition. Regardless, the result gave another boost to El Salvador’s beleaguered soccer program, and set up a (Baja) California Clásico: LA Galaxy vs. Tijuana.
CONCACAF Champions League returns with quarterfinals in March 2014. See you then!
OTF’s Austin Fido faces a barren winter, devoid of CCL. Cheer him up @canetop.