CONCACAF Champions League: Quarterfinal 1st Leg Round-Up
CCL quarterfinal first legs are over. OTF’s Austin Fido recaps…
Having fun yet? The CCL quarterfinal first legs spat out a string of binary code (0-0, 1-1, 1-0, 1-0) which might require some translation. Allow me: quite good!
It would be overstating to call any of these matches a classic. But there was one classic goal (Sensational, Mr. Nava), and an entertainingly even set of contests between the MLS and Liga MX sides.
There isn’t a team in the tournament without realistic hope of making the next round after these games. Sure, count all the clubs hosting the second legs as favorites to progress, but not prohibitively so.
Home advantage is not necessarily conclusive: Alajuelense and San Jose dominated their matches, and didn’t win; LA and KC were severely tested by their visitors, and didn’t lose. There is much to look forward to from the concluding fixtures of this round.
ALAJUELENSE 0-0 ARABE UNIDO
Arabe Unido withstood a battering in Alajuela, coming away with a scarcely deserved 0-0.
Nonetheless, it was a result the Panamanian side should treasure. They soaked up 21 shots, 7 corners, and at least one ball-to-hand in the box that might have been a penalty to Alajuelense on another day.
And they did it with something resembling a youth team: seven of Arabe Unido’s starting lineup for this game were under-23.
The prize is a winner-takes-all “home” (the match is currently scheduled for Panama City, not Colon) fixture.
The quasi-neutral venue might suit El Expreso Azul, since it has managed just one win in four home games in the league so far this year (a chance to alter that statistic arrives in the shape of Plaza Amador on 3/14). Alajuelense should be more confident.
Los Manudos were clearly the better team in the first leg, and need simply to maintain that dominance, and hit the target, in the next match. But they appear to be decelerating – Wednesday’s 4-2 loss in the league to Limon means Costa Rica’s defending champs have won just one of their last six fixtures (including CCL).
One of these teams is going to a CCL semi-final, which means one of these teams needs to turn recent form around pretty quickly.
2nd Leg – 3/20 @ Arabe Unido (9pm CST)
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES 1-1 TOLUCA
Toluca treated this fixture with well-rehearsed contempt: claiming not to have scouted the Quakes (How did you know they weren’t worth scouting if you didn’t…you know…watch them?), and trotting out much the same mix of reserves and nearly-men that imperiously claimed the top seed for the knockout rounds.
It was a risky strategy, one which the Quakes very nearly punished. The home team should have scored three or four goals – there were plenty of chances, fashioned from scant possession, as is their habit.
Instead, Raul Nava pounced on an errant Jason Hernandez clearance, punching an extraordinary volley past Jon Busch from the top of the box. He now has seven goals in five CCL appearances this season – and the latest one will show up in highlights packages for some time to come.
Fine, Toluca – if that’s what you consider a bench-quality player, you ride those guys all the way to the final.
The Quakes reply was characteristic to the point of caricature. It was late – the last minute of stoppage time. It was a header scored by a big man off a set piece, hopefully punted into the box. It was everything they should have been doing from the start.
Did Toluca play prettier football? No doubt. Did Los Diablos Rojos deserve to win, or even tie, this game? Nope. They got lucky. And now stand as clear favorites to progress, since the Quakes will need to score at least one goal on the road.
But the San Jose players know they had the best of this game, and they know they played the sort of football that could stand up pretty well on a tough road trip. Seven shots on target from less than 40% possession is a good return — particularly when your opponents are only allowed one shot on frame. (Yes, it was a hell of a shot.)
It’s a near-perfect statistical model of the direct, counter-attacking game the Quakes need to get a goal in Toluca.
2nd Leg – 3/19 @ Toluca (7pm CST)
LOS ANGELES GALAXY 1-0 TIJUANA
Looks like we have a legitimate cross-border rivalry here, folks.
LA and Tijuana are about 135 miles apart, in different leagues, and different countries, so this is not a match-up that will ever be uttered in the same breath as Liverpool-Everton or Celtic-Rangers.
Still, the first leg of this quarterfinal played out in the topsy-turvy, which-of-these-is-the-home-team?, way we expect of a derby match. It was fun to watch.
LA got a goal early. The entire Xolos defense was so flummoxed by Robbie Keane’s abject failure to control a through ball, Samuel was allowed an uncontested shot from 10 yards.
Given Tijuana’s shaky form (this was their third loss in five games), things might have got out of hand, but the visitors clung on until half-time, and then came out for the second half with unexpected vigor.
Jaime Penedo kept Xolos at bay for 45 minutes, as the tables were turned and LA took a slapping from their impudent guests. Penedo’s work in goal was in the same class as Nick Rimando’s during LA’s preceding match in Carson. The Galaxy’s fans aren’t seeing a lot of goals to kick off the new season, but they are seeing some magnificent goalkeeping.
Neither team looks manifestly superior to the other, both seem to care plenty about the result. This bodes well for the second leg.
2nd Leg – 3/18 @ Tijuana (9pm CST)
SPORTING KANSAS CITY 1-0 CRUZ AZUL
Huge credit to Sporting Kansas City for this match. The club sold out its stadium, which is exactly what should be happening when the best team in Mexico shows up on your doorstep looking for a competitive game.
And Sporting put in a heroic shift to contain the Liga MX table-toppers. Neither team achieved any great fluidity on the field, which will satisfy KC, for whom disrupting Cruz Azul’s passing rhythm was a clear tactical objective.
The MLS team rode its luck a little…Ok, A LOT. Ike Opara was everywhere, twice making essential interventions. Seth Sinovic hoiked the ball off his own goal-line. Benny Feilhaber went one further, extending an arm across the goalmouth like Gandalf facing down a Balrog, and getting the benefit of the doubt from the referee that he blocked the shot with his shoulder.
Cruz Azul had the ball in the net inside the opening 10 minutes, but a tight offside call went the home team’s way. KC got the calls when they were needed – including three yellow cards, provoked with variations on the theme of time-wasting (Yes, an unnecessary shouting match with an opponent is a form of time-wasting).
But Sporting made plays when needed also. Kevin Ellis’s goal wasn’t brilliant: a scuffed shot inside the near post from an angle the ‘keeper should have had covered. He was given too much space by those defending him, and caught Jesus Corona napping.
The goal was set up by an intelligent pass from Claudio Bieler, punched over the defense for Ellis to collect. Ellis – the team’s second-choice right back, let us not forget – cut into the box, stayed on his feet, and took the best option he had.
Overall, KC’s performance was solid, but not outstanding (except for Opara – KC loses this game 2-1 without him). And that is a good sign for Sporting.
Cruz Azul won both its road games in the group stage 2-1, courtesy of late goals. La Maquina won both games at home 3-0. A single goal deficit is not a great source of concern for this team. Home advantage should put things right.
Despite the win, KC still has the toughest opponent of any MLS team in these quarterfinals, and the least chance, therefore, of progressing. But Peter Vermes will have noted Cruz Azul put out a very strong team (only Gerardo Flores isn’t a regular starter in Liga MX this year, and he played 40 games for La Maquina last season). KC did not.
The stars for Sporting on the night – Ellis and Opara – are perhaps the most likely to be on the bench for the second leg. There is gas in KC’s tank.
2nd Leg – 3/19 @ Cruz Azul (9pm CST)
CONCACAF editor Austin Fido gets emotional about CCL @canetop. Follow him. Bring tissues.