CCL 2014-15: Group 1 Preview – Municipal, Pachuca & Real Espana
CONCACAF Champions League is coming! Before the group stage kicks off on August 6, OTF’s Austin Fido is on a group-by-group hunt for upsets…
It’s back! CONCACAF Champions League: the highlight of the regional soccer calendar.
You disagree? Comments are open to all.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the tournament, a quick primer. CCL is effectively two tournaments: there is the group stage, which runs for six midweek rounds spread from August to October; and there is the knockout phase, which runs from March to April.
From the perspective of MLS, it means clubs are playing the groups with a roster in mid-season form (for better or worse). If they reach the latter stages, they compete with the following year’s squad, just out of preseason.
This is often presented as a built-in disadvantage for MLS, which has traditionally struggled to get past Liga MX teams in the tournament.
It could equally be an advantage: the rest of the region plays CCL the other way round – groups pretty much starting right after preseason, and knockouts when teams know each other better. MLS could play full-strength teams in the groups, get preferential seedings for the knockout rounds, then scout the hell out of upcoming opponents and use the offseason to strengthen as needed.
This doesn’t happen. (For more helpful advice for MLS clubs in CCL, see here.)
The CCL group stage at present is intended to be a vehicle for generating Liga MX vs MLS match-ups in the knockout phase. Clubs from those leagues are kept apart in the groups. The 24 teams in the tournament are divided into eight groups of three. The winner of each group progresses, and the group-winners are seeded for the latter stages based on points and goal difference from the opening phase.
The expectation is the Liga MX or MLS representative in each group will progress. This is a general preview of the group stage, so to keep things interesting, it looks at the potential for an upset out of each group.
Generally speaking, an “upset” means the Liga MX or MLS club doesn’t advance, which happens with some regularity.
The 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League is the third year of the one-team-from-three group format. Prior to that, groups were typically four teams, with the top two advancing. Teams from the region’s bigger leagues got knocked out early in the old format, and they are bounced with similar frequency in the new: usually a couple every year.
In 2012-13, the first year under the new format, it was Mexico’s Chivas (pipped on head-to-head away goals by Guatemala’s Xelajú) and MLS’s Real Salt Lake (beaten out by Costa Rica’s Herediano) who fell at the first hurdle.
Last year, Houston Dynamo was knocked out by Panama’s Árabe Unido, and Club América fell to Alajuelense.
At some point, all the Liga MX and MLS clubs will get their acts together and advance. Ultimately, it comes down to how seriously they each take the competition’s early rounds, and how quickly any underestimation of the opposition is addressed.
Very occasionally, they are legitimately outclassed, usually by a team from Costa Rica, and even then the perceived favorite can rely on a soothing dose of hindsight from soccer’s pundit class explaining why it wasn’t that important, they weren’t really trying, and CONCACAF hates whichever club got knocked out.
Nothing is more characteristic of CCL than the sore-loser chorus when the big teams fail (Toluca tried a fresh approach last year: the sore winner.)
In this first installment of this year’s CCL preview from OTF, Group 1 gets the once over to see whether there might be any upsets on the horizon. Let’s dig in…
GROUP 1: Municipal, Pachuca, Real España
Liga MX’s Pachuca is the heavy hitter in Group 1. Los Tuzos haven’t been to this tournament since the 2009-10 edition, which they won. Indeed, four regional titles from 2002 to 2010 makes Pachuca the CONCACAF team of the last decade.
Achievements have been less great since then. Los Tuzos haven’t won anything of significance since the 2009-10 CCL. They’re in this year’s edition because they were the runner-up in the 2014 Liga MX Clausura final. An uncharitable evaluation of the club might suggest this was essentially a middling team that got hot on the back of a streaking striker at just the right time.
Enner Valencia scored 18 goals in 23 appearances last year for Pachuca. But he’s gone to West Ham in the EPL, and it remains to be seen how adequately he can be replaced.
Still, Pachuca started the 2014 Apertura with a 1-0 road win over Cruz Azul, made all the more impressive by the fact the visitors finished the match with only nine men on the pitch. (Pachuca subsequently lost its home opener, 1-0 to Monterrey – which might simply be attributed to the cost of having two starters suspended while still easing into form, or the misfortune to be on the receiving end of a great goal.)
Some defensive grit may come in handy in this group.
But Municipal is the current, and presumed final, club of Carlos Ruiz, who took out his frustration at being trapped in DC United’s dismal 2013 season by scoring eight times in 13 games on his return to his home country. Ruiz has started the new campaign in similar form: he bagged two goals against Xelajú in his first game of the new season.
Los Rojos also have the advantage of being able to find a little bit of form before CCL starts. The tournament doesn’t begin for the Guatemalans until August 21, by which time they’ll have five league games completed.
Real España is not so fortunate: the August 6 trip to Pachuca will be its first competitive game of the season. In the off-season to date, the team has sent midfielder Mario Martinez on loan to Barcelona SC in Ecuador, lost Costa Rican winger Allan Alemán to the Chinese second division and Costa Rican manager Hernan Medford to the Honduran national team. Carlo Costly is rumored to be considering an offer from Houston Dynamo.
This may not be a team at the peak of its powers when CCL kicks off.
This a shame because Real España had put together a good-looking squad over the last season.
Medford was the manager of Saprissa’s 2005 CONCACAF Champions Cup winning squad, and he took the same team to third place at the World Club Cup. In addition to former national team hero Carlo Costly (he retired from internationals after the World Cup), and current Catracho Edder Delgado, the squad includes a number of rising stars of Honduran football: 20-year-old ‘keeper Luis López, midfielders Gerson Rodas and Bryan Acosta, as well as forward Bryan Róchez.
And they have the advantage of playing in San Pedro Sula, the Honduran city that gets blamed for visiting teams’ losses almost as much as the Honduran teams who beat them.
But the off-season has seen the roster picked over, and there may yet be a few more departures before the summer transfer window closes.
Group1 Upset Outlook: MODERATE
This group begins and ends with Real España – literally: the first match sees Pachuca host the Hondurans and the last match is Los Tuzos‘ trip to San Pedro Sula.
If Pachuca is to somehow fail to get out of the group, the most likely scenario would see the Liga MX team heading to Honduras needing a point or three from the last round of group matches, perhaps distracted by whatever their league aspirations may be by October, and facing an opponent finally warmed up and ready to put up a fight.
For the group to still be alive in the last round, however, Pachuca needs to drop points somewhere else along the way, or La Realeza needs to take six points off Municipal.
Unfortunately for the upset dream, whatever tricks Carlos Ruiz may still have in him are far more likely to come off against a lukewarm Real España than a half-decent Liga MX defense.
Pachuca is clearly the favorite, but this is perhaps the toughest pair of opponents a Liga MX side will face in the group stage. In CCL, this sort of group is what passes for a better-than-bad shot at an upset in the opening phase.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Municipal: Jeffrey Payeras
Those credentials would make him kind of a big deal if he were a homegrown player on the Galaxy’s books. CCL could be his chance to get back on his home country’s radar.
Pachuca: Jürgen Damm
There was talk of the 21-year-old winger moving to Chelsea earlier this summer, but he’s sticking with Pachuca for the moment. He’s Mexican and, as his name suggests, he is also German. Dual-nationality will ease his passage to Europe if and when the time comes.
For now, he’s an exciting prospect for his club and his country. It remains to be seen whether Los Tuzos consider him too precious an asset to risk in the early rounds of CCL.
Real España: Bryan Róchez
The 19-year-old forward scored 20 goals in 40 appearances in the Honduran top flight last season. Unsurprisingly, he’s rumored to be on the radar of European clubs. But he’s still young and hasn’t broken through to his national team yet – though when club teammate Carlo Costly retired from international football after the World Cup to “give opportunities to the young“, Róchez will have been one of the youths he was referencing.
His highlight reel makes him out to be a poacher, in the Chris Wondolowski mold, though perhaps a bit better equipped physically than the MLS stalwart, which is why Róchez is racking up goals as a professional at an age when Wondo was just a good player for Chico State.
Last year could simply have been a flash in the pan for the young striker, which may explain why he’s still on Real España’s books: the scouts could be waiting to see if he can do it again. Let’s hope so: CCL needs all the talent it can get.
Group 1, Matchday 1: August 6 – Pachuca vs. Real España – 7:00 pm (Chicago time)
Follow @OTFSoccer for CCL coverage updates
OTF’s Austin Fido gets excitable about CCL @canetop. Follow at your own risk.