CONCACAF Champions League 2014-15: Quarterfinals Preview, Part 1 – Olimpia vs Herediano & Montreal vs Pachuca
OTF’s CONCACAF editor Austin Fido previews the first two CCL 2014-15 quarterfinal match-ups: Herediano vs. Olimpia and Montreal Impact vs. Pachuca…
Finally, CONCACAF Champions League is back!
The long winter is not yet over, but the first sign of spring in this part of the world is the CCL knockout rounds, and they are here to brighten our dark evenings a full fortnight earlier than they were in 2014 (when the quarterfinals kicked off closer to mid-March).
It’s been a while since we had to think about CCL, so a little reminder of the teams involved seems appropriate. Also, these teams are not necessarily the same as those we saw qualify from the groups in October. All have been through at least a mid-season break and the January transfer window. Some (looking at you, MLS) are still in preseason.
Nonetheless, this year’s quarterfinals offer more than the usual amount of hope that, for the first time since 2005, we may see CONCACAF crown a regional club champion that isn’t from Liga MX .
First, there are only two Liga MX clubs remaining in the field. Sure, you should count them as favorites to win the whole thing, and they are on opposite sides of the draw, so they may yet meet in the final. But América and Pachuca have not insignificant hurdles standing between them and the CCL crown.
Thus far, CCL 2014-15 has been Costa Rica’s Champions League: all three of its representatives advanced out of the group stage, two of them at the expense of Liga MX teams. América may have to play two Costa Rican clubs just to get to the final – Saprissa in this round, and Herediano in the semifinals. The alternative to Herediano is Olimpia, currently the hottest team in Honduras.
In Pachuca’s half of the draw, there are the two remaining MLS clubs: Montreal Impact – Los Tuzos‘ opponent in the quarterfinals – and D.C. United, the top seed in this phase of the competition. Pachuca will concede home advantage to both MLS clubs (if it plays them both). And it too may have to tangle with a Costa Rican opponent: Alajuelense is the lowest seed in the competition, but beat out Cruz Azul – CCL’s reigning champion – to get this far.
Liga MX teams have earned the right to be considered favorites to win CCL for as long as they remain in the tournament. But this year has seen Costa Rica’s clubs take a big step toward the region’s top tier. If Saprissa can find a way past América and Herediano beats Olimpia, we might see an all Costa Rican CCL semifinal.
Similarly, on the other side of the draw, Montreal and DC could guarantee an al- MLS club semifinal by winning their respective quarterfinals. None of those outcomes would be particularly surprising, despite the fact Pachuca and Las Águilas are favorites to contest the final in April.
No disrespect to Liga MX’s teams, who have been consistent and worthy champions for most of the last decade, but if a different corner of CONCACAF can claim the trophy this year, it will arguably be a greater service to the region’s showcase soccer tournament than if the title heads to Mexico for the tenth year in a row.
The first two quarterfinals kick off on February 24. Here’s a look at the teams involved…
(6) OLIMPIA vs. (3) HEREDIANO
1st Leg – 2/24 @ Olimpia (7pm CST); 2nd Leg – 3/5 @ Herediano (7pm CST)
There hasn’t been a Honduran club in the semifinals of this tournament since 2000, when Olimpia lost to LA Galaxy in the final of the (as it was then) Champions Cup.
Los Leones are coming into the knockout rounds in impressive form, while their quarterfinal opponent, Costa Rica’s Herediano, has been faltering recently. Costa Rican clubs were the heroes of the group phase, but could a Honduran team stake a claim for regional respect in the championship stage?
How They Got Here:
Los Leones bested Portland Timbers in the final match of Group 5 to edge into these quarterfinals on a head-to-head tiebreaker: Olimpia scored two goals in Portland, the Timbers only managed to score one on their visit to Honduras.
The only remaining Honduran club in the competition is unquestionably in this round on merit: it needed a very particular result against Portland in that group stage finale and worked hard to get it.
What They’ve Been Doing Recently:
Olimipia finished second in the Liga Nacional Apertura – just a point short of table-topping Real España (it was a tight race: the top five teams were separated by two points). In the ensuing playoffs, Los Leones were bounced at the semifinal stage by Motagua, who went on to win the tournament.
The team has started the Clausura in encouraging form: it is five points clear at the top of the table after six games, undefeated, and has won all four of its home matches in the league to date. Both away games have been tied.
One To Watch: Anthony Lozano
Olimpia has an impressive collection of young Honduran attacking talent: Romell Quioto is the club’s top scorer so far in the 2014-15 domestic campaign (12 goals in 21 appearances); Alberth Elis has six goals in 12 appearances in league play this season, and had a solid CONCACAF U-20 Championship for Honduras (four goals scored); Michaell Chirinos doesn’t feature much for the club yet, but caught the eye for Los Catrachos‘ U-20s in Jamaica as well.
But the form striker for Olimpia at the moment is Anthony Lozano, who has picked up four goals in his team’s first six league games. He scored four in the group stage of this CCL as well, including two that helped Los Leones pip the Timbers in the final match. And he knocked in two of the three goals Honduras scored in back-to-back friendlies against Venezuela in February.
He is 21, but appears to be developing quickly and proving himself a scoring threat at every level he’s played this season. To date he has a combined 17 goals in 27 total competitive appearances for club and country since the 2014-15 season began. And six of those goals have arrived since January 18th.
How They Got Here:
Herediano is the team that was never supposed to be here: it got dropped into the competition after the opening round of the group stage because Belize’s Belmopan Bandits fell foul of CONCACAF’s pitch inspectors.
Credit a club for taking its chances – the third-best Costa Rican team in the tournament claimed its place in the CCL quarterfinals by out-pointing Isidro Metapán and Club León, the bicampeones of the 2013-14 seasons in El Salvador and Mexico respectively.
What They’ve Been Doing Recently:
CCL success aside, Herediano has spent the first half of the 2014-15 season finishing second: to Alajuelense in the Primera División’s Torneo de Invierno table; to Saprissa in the finals of the playoffs.
Current form is good but not great: between January 28 and February 15, Herediano contrived to win just one out of five games, despite conceding only two goals. This suggests a lackluster attack needs to find form quickly if Los Rojiamarrillos are to make progress in CCL.
On the bright side, the team has picked up a bit and posted back-to-back wins (and clean sheets) in its last two league games.
One To Watch: Alexander Larín
A big part of the reason Herediano has been a little goal shy recently has been injury to forward Yendrick Ruiz, who closed out 2014 with seven goals in five games and has scored 17 in 25 league appearances so far this season.
Larín is not a forward, and he has fallen out of favor recently: since the second half of the season began in Costa Rica, he has largely been on the bench. But the young Salvadoran wing back/winger was a memorable feature of Herediano’s group stage success.
He’s a fun player to watch when he’s in form, and if he gets a chance to make amends for whatever faults have seen him drop out of the starting lineup during these quarterfinals, he shouldn’t lack for motivation to remind his coach of what he can bring to a team in need of an attacking spark.
(5) PACHUCA vs. (4) MONTREAL IMPACT
1st Leg – 2/24 @ Pachuca (9pm CST); 2nd Leg – 3/3 @ Montreal (7pm CST)
It’s funny how times change. During the group stage, when Pachuca was lighting up CCL and Montreal was stinking up MLS, you wouldn’t have given L’Impact a chance in any match-up with Los Tuzos.
Fast forward a few months and Pachuca is still the favorite, but perhaps not as prohibitively as would have been predicted in September.
Montreal has the higher seed in this quarterfinal, and the last time a MLS team carried the higher seed against a Liga MX side in CCL – well, Seattle Sounders made the semifinals and Tigres UANL did not. The big question is whether the offseason has allowed L’Impact tool up sufficiently to close the gap between itself and Pachuca sufficiently for home advantage in this round to make a difference.
If Montreal can keep things close in Mexico, then hosting Los Tuzos on a cold day in Canada on a plastic pitch in front of a sizeable contingent of home supporters (Joey Saputo’s concerns notwithstanding) could be sufficient to tip the balance of this fixture L’Impact’s way.
How They Got Here:
Pachuca cantered through its group matches so easily it was a big surprise to see the presumptive top seed of the knockout rounds lose to Real España and tumble to fifth-best in the quarterfinal rankings.
Still, prior to that hiccup, Los Tuzos had been playing confident, attacking, high-scoring soccer – often with their B-team.
What They’ve Done Recently:
In the Liga MX 2014-15 Apertura, Pachuca was a win-some-lose-some sort of team. Seventh place in the table was sufficient to qualify for the Liguilla, but Los Tuzos were bounced in the first round by (eventual finalists) Tigres UANL.
The team used the winter window to bring in some experienced Argentine attackers: 27-year-old Germán Cano, who has been a prolific scorer in Colombian club soccer for the last few seasons, and 30-year-old Dario Cvitanich, who played for Pachuca the last time it won CCL (the 2009-10 season).
Los Tuzos got off to poor start in the Clausura, losing three of their first four matches and scoring only three times in their opening five fixtures. But the team is unbeaten in its last three Liga MX games and has won the last two.
One To Watch: Junior Sornoza
Pachuca remains a collection of some of the most promising young attacking talent in Liga MX, buttressed by some of the oldest defensive players in the league. 22-year-old Jürgen Damm and U-20 talents Erick Gutiérrez and Hirving Lozano are arguably the best known of the former group; 42-year-old ‘keeper Óscar Pérez, defenders Aquivaldo Mosquera (33) and Walter Ayoví (35) compose the veteran core of a back line that has yet to keep a clean sheet in the Clausura.
But among the new recruits this winter is Junior Sornoza, a 21-year-old Ecuadorian who has scored 36 goals over the past two seasons in Ecuador – and if that doesn’t mean a lot to you, he also scored four in the 2014 Copa Libertadores.
How They Got Here:
Albeit for the wrong reasons (its MLS season was an unmitigated disaster), L’Impact played the group stage exactly right. The team didn’t get maximum points because it wasn’t very good, but it won its group because it consistently put out a strong lineup, while the New York Red Bulls tried to get by in the same group with a reserve team and fell flat.
What They’ve Done Recently:
After finishing dead last in MLS, L’Impact set about dismantling its terrible team and building a better one. The off-season has seen 13 players released (so far) and 13 players signed (if you include Ambroise Oyongo). Significant additions include Belgium international Laurent Ciman, former Italy U-21 captain Marco Donadel, and journeyman forward Dominic Oduro.
The team has also paid attention to its preseason preparations, taking a trip to Mexico to play friendlies against Cruz Azul (lost 1-0) and Cuautla FC (won 6-0) – a smart (but all-too-rare) move for a MLS team that knows its first competitive match of the season will be in a foreign country and climate.
All of this is in the service of coming out strong in Mexico for the opening game of the season. Montreal can offer one of the least appetizing road trips in CONCACAF to its CCL rivals (cold weather, artificial turf pitch, a not inconsequential number of fans to cheer on the home team), but it needs a favorable result in the first leg to be able to make home advantage count in the second.
One To Watch: Ignacio Piatti
Pachuca may have a guy who scored a bunch of goals in last year’s Copa Libertadores, but Montreal has a player who won that competition. Sort of: Piatti wasn’t on the pitch when San Lorenzo clinched the trophy – denied by the timing of his transfer to Montreal – but he was a significant contributor to San Lorenzo’s success along the way.
He missed his chance to feature in this year’s Club World Cup, but now he has a second shot with a new team in a different confederation. Are we entering a new age of continental cup specialists in CONCACAF?
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CONCACAF editor Austin Fido chats CCL @canetop.