Sometimes it's better to be lucky than to be good. The Colorado Rapids were not the best MLS club in 2010, but over the last month of the regular season and the playoffs, they were the league's hottest team. The list of MLS Cup winners features many teams that simply got hot at the right time rather than clubs that sustained greatness over a full season. Like most things in life, good timing is just as vital as anything else.
Colorado's good fortune may not have carried over into the 2011 season judging from their never-ending cycle of injured forwards, but it did at least make a brief return for the CONCACAF Champions League draw. Placed as the top seed in Group B, the Rapids should have little trouble advancing from what is the CCL's softest group.
Joining Colorado as a direct qualifier to Group B is Real Espana, winners of the Honduran Apertura in 2010. Espana last made the CCL in 2009, where they spectacularly overturned a 3-0 first leg loss to Costa Rican side Liberia Mia by winning 6-0 at home. That was the end of the fun times for them; Espana eventually finished an embarrassing 4th in their group.
Unlike the other Honduran clubs that frequently end up in the CCL, Los Aurinegros aren't stocked with present or past national team players. Still, there are a couple notable names, including Uruguayan goalkeeper Marcelo Macias, promising young midfielder Edder Delgado (who made the Honduran Gold Cup squad) and aging striker Julio Rodriguez. Nevertheless, Real Espana should not pose much of a threat to Colorado, particularly at altitude.
The biggest problem for Colorado in Group B will be Mexican power Santos Laguna. Santos has outstanding attacking talent, though they have had a history of underperforming slightly in the CCL. Still, any club with players like Colombian forward Carlos Darwin Quintero, Argentine playmaker Daniel Luduena, and Panama captain Felipe Baloy - first-choice players that Santos has always used in CCLs past - is a big challenge for Gary Smith's side. With due respect to the Rapids, Santos will be the hot favorite to take first place.
Colorado's final opponent is AD Isidro Metapan of El Salvador. Los Caleros are well-known in their home country for being the most organized team defensively, and they make no bones about primarily playing on the break. In last year's CCL, Metapan played the Seattle Sounders closer than expected, only eventually going out 2-1 on aggregate despite being overmatched in terms of talent, experience, and athleticism.
That low scoreline tells you what you need to know about Metapan: While they are always prepared and intelligent in the back, they don't quite have the creativity and finishing ability to be a threat at a level higher than the Salvadoran league. The job of creating chances will fall primarily to Paolo Suarez, whose younger brother is the somewhat more famous Luis Suarez of Liverpool and Uruguay. There are also numerous El Salvador national team players (including defender Alfredo Pacheco and goalkeeper Miguel Montes) throughout the squad, but frankly it's a surprise that they even got past the Puerto Rico Islanders in the qualifying round. They might be able to get a win over Espana at home, but any hopes beyond that seem unrealistic.
In terms of where Colorado should finish, second place looks most likely. Santos will be too strong going forward and too experienced for the Rapids to finish ahead of them (though beating the Guerreros at Dick's Sporting Goods Park is not at all out of the question). Their competition for second, if there is any, is likely to come from Real Espana; Colorado's mix of size and speed is a bad combination for Metapan. If the Rapids can win two out of either their home game against Santos or their road matches against Espana and Metapan, they should finish second with ease.