Ned Grabavoy and Real Salt Lake became the first MLS team to win their group in the modern era of the CONCACAF Champions League. They will now face the Columbus Crew in the quarterfinals. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

CONCACAF Champions League's Previews: Central Americans Square Off Thursday

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Olimpia Vs. Saprissa, CONCACAF Champions League Preview: A Battle For Central American Supremacy

In an odd sequence of events, this year's CONCACAF Champions League knockout round will kick off in insular fashion. The Mexican giants have all been drawn against each other, as have the two remaining MLS clubs. That leaves CCL regulars CD Olimpia of Honduras and Costa Rican powerhouse Deportivo Saprissa to face each other in the "other" quarterfinal tie.

The lack of hype surrounding this pairing should not give fans a reason to overlook either side, however. Olimpia won their group over Deportivo Toluca, who justifiably entered the tournament as one of the favorites. Saprissa, meanwhile, has the best recent pedigree in CONCACAF of any non-Mexican club; they are both the last non-Mexican finalist (2008) and the last non-Mexican club to win the tournament (2005). In other words, these are two proud clubs that will approach this round and the semifinals - against the winner of the all-MLS tie - with no fear.

How they got here
  • CD Olimpia: Los Leones won the 2010 Honduran Clausura tournament and, having finished with more points than Apertura champions CD Marathon over both tournaments, qualified directly to the group stage. After doing poorly to start off (a 1-1 draw at the Puerto Rico Islanders, followed by an embarrassing 4-0 loss at Deportivo Toluca), Olimpia rebounded to win four straight matches and finish atop Group D. In doing so, Olimpia became only the fourth non-Mexican club to win their group since CONCACAF adopted the current CCL format.
  • Deportivo Saprissa: El Monstruo Morado qualified directly into the group stage as Costa Rica's top club after winning the 2010 Verano championship. Placed in a tough Group C, Saprissa rode their home form (taking seven of nine available points at the fearsome Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Ayma) to second place on 10 points. Saprissa was the only team in Group C to avoid losing twice to group winners CF Monterrey.
What's changed since CCL Group Stage 
  • CD Olimpia: Very little. Colombian forward Maurico Copete now plays for Honduran rivals CD Motagua. Olimpia replaced him by signing Brazilian striker Douglas Caetano, who regularly finished near the top of the goalscoring chart at Real Espana.
  • Deportivo Saprissa: Coach Roy Myers was replaced by Mexican Juan Manuel Alvarez after a disastrous Invierno tournament in which they finished eleventh out of twelve teams. Major changes were made to the roster as well, with the return of midfielder Saul Phillip from Brujas foremost amongst them. Holding midfielder Jose Luis Lopez has returned from a loan spell at Dalian Shide in China, while no fewer than four players - goalkeeper Victor Bolivar, defender Roberto Wong, midfielder Maikol Ortiz, and striker William Phillips - were all acquired on loan from AD Barrio Mexico (who, while Saprissa struggled during the Invierno, finished second overall).
Probable lineups
  • CD Olimpia: (4-4-2) - Valladares; Barahona, Arevalo, De Souza, B. Lozano; O. Garcia, Tilguath, W. Castro, Turcios; Rojas, Bruschi
  • Deportivo Saprissa: (4-3-1-2) - Bolivar; Wong, Mena, D. Sequeira, Badilla; Blanco, Guzman, Ortiz; Centeno; Martinez, A. Sequeira
Head to head
  • CD Olimpia wins if: Fabio De Souza keeps the back four organized, and if Roger Rojas and Ramiro Bruschi can be clinical when they get chances. Saprissa is the highest scoring team in Costa Rica this season, so keeping things tight (especially on the FieldTurf at Estadio Saprissa in the second leg) will be very important. However, just as important for Olimpia will be finishing their chances when they come. Saprissa's goalscoring only partially masks their mediocre defense; this is a team that wins 3-2, not 1-0. Olimpia's attackers will get their chances to score, but wasting those chances would leave Olimpia open to a heavy first leg defeat.
  • Deportivo Saprissa wins if: They can collectively shut down Oscar Boniek Garcia. The Olimpia midfield has decent skill, but the only player that truly breaks defenses down on a regular basis is the marauding Garcia. If Saprissa can force Garcia to have to pass before he can begin running at people, they can cut the supply line to their forwards and leave Olimpia relying on set pieces. It's going to take a collective effort, though, because left back Gabriel Badilla can be beaten if left to deal with Garcia alone.

Prediction: Expect drama, acrimony, controversy, and goals here. Both clubs view themselves as the kings of Central American soccer, and there are a couple of hotheads sprinkled throughout each team. Saprissa will look strong at home, but Olimpia should be able to emerge from "The Monster's Cave" with a 2-2 draw thanks to the home side's shoddy defense. While Olimpia will have to play their "home" leg on the other side of the country - their home, the Estadio Tiburcio Carias Andino, was not cleared by CONCACAF, so they'll have to host the game in San Pedro Sula's Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano - they should still have enough support to emerge with a 2-1 win and a date with either Real Salt Lake or the Columbus Crew in the semifinals.

-Report by Chest Rockwell - Black & Red United


Cruz Azul Vs. Santos Laguna, CONCACAF Champions League: Just How Serious Are These Two?

With all due respect to Monterrey and Real Salt Lake, Cruz Azul and Santos Laguna are the two most talented teams on the North American continent. When either team is on form and playing a first choice XI, they can beat any other team in CONCACAF. However, this doesn't mean that either side is the clear favorite in CONCACAF Champions League. Both teams are very streaky, and neither team is guaranteed to field a first-choice lineup in their CCL tie.

Neither Cruz Azul nor Santos has managed to win the Primera in recent years, but they've both been runners-up on multiple occasions. Thanks to some epic chokes, including an awful penalty shootout performance from Santos in the final of the Bicentenario, the talent from these two teams has never produced a champion. 

If either team plays their first XI and stays focused through the next three ties, they will win the tournament. Let's start with the quarterfinals, though.

How they got here
  • Cruz Azul: Playing what was essentially a B+ team in their group stage matches, Cruz Azul were made to work a little more than they should have. Their 5-4 defeat of Real Salt Lake at a monsoon-soaked Estadio Azul was probably the best game of the competition so far, but RSL got revenge in the final game of the group stages with a 3-1 win at Rio Tinto. The Blue Machine also lost at BMO Field against Toronto FC, but otherwise cruised through the group stage and finished in second place, behind RSL.
  • Santos Laguna: Despite playing a B team throughout the group stages, Santos cruised through to the quarterfinals in first place, thanks to a weak group. Their lowlight was a loss at Columbus' Crew Stadium, but they only played two first-choice players in that game. When they put out a stronger team consisting of seven or eight first-choice players, depending on who you ask, they obliterated Municipal, 6-1.
What's changed since the CCL Group Stage
  • Cruz Azul: The Blue Machine has made a couple of personnel changes, but nothing major. They still have the same core group of players. Chaco Gimenez is their best attacking threat, Gerardo Torrado is still the captain and still runs the midfield, and Jesus Corona still holds down the goalkeeper spot. Defender Waldo Ponce, left winger Hugo Drougett, central midfielder Marcelo Palau, and forward Isaac Romo are the new additions, and it's possible that any of them could play except Drougett, who is injured.
  • Santos Laguna: When you get to the Liguilla final playing the most attractive football in the country, why change? Santos are the exact same team.
Probable Lineups
  • Cruz Azul (4-4-2): Corona; Cortes, Cervantes, Dominguez, Araujo; Villaluz, Palau, Torrado, Gimenez; Romo, Orozco
  • Santos Laguna (4-4-2): Sanchez; Estrada, Baloy, Lacerda, Figueroa; Morales, Arce, Cardenas, Ludueña; Benitez, Quintero
Head to head
  • Cruz Azul wins if: Chaco Gimenez has a spectacular game. When Gimenez is on form, Cruz Azul are almost unstoppable. They struggle to score when he's not playing well, and they don't get beat when he is. An error-free performance from a streaky and inconsistent back line wouldn't hurt either.
  • Santos Laguna wins if: They play a first XI or close to it, and those players give 110 percent. Santos Laguna, on their best form, are the best team in North America. If they choose to rest some of their stars or they don't put in the effort, it's a different story. It's a blow for them that Juan Rodriguez is not available, but even without him, no one beats them on talent.

Prediction: It's tough to make a call here, just because it's almost impossible to predict what lineups are going to be thrown out there. Emmanuel Villa has been working his socks off in every game in the league for Cruz Azul for quite some time, so he seems like a good candidate to get a rest. Same goes for Gonzalo Pineda. Meanwhile, Santos only played Cristian Benitez for 45 minutes on the weekend. That tells me that they're taking this game seriously, and I like a Santos A- side with nine or ten first choice players to beat a Cruz Azul B+ side with a couple less first choice players.


Columbus Crew Vs. Real Salt Lake, CONCACAF Champions League: Who Will Carry MLS's Flag

There was a point during the 2010 MLS season were the Columbus Crew and Real Salt Lake both seemed capable of winning multiple trophies. Both were among the leaders in the Supporters' Shield race, had a proven record in the playoffs and were humming along in CONCACAF Champions League. The Crew had even advanced to the U.S. Open Cup finals.

Although their paths starting taking divergent paths around September, both ultimately ended up in the same place: Just two more teams without a single trophy in 2010. The CCL quarterfinals, in a sense, are the final opportunity to make sure their efforts in 2010 are not entirely wasted.

The Crew, as you may remember, watched their season crumble around them as the strain of the crowded schedule seemed to get the best of them. After being just a few points short of the Supporters' Shield as late as August, the Crew finished the season by claiming six points in their final seven regular-season matches before crashing out of the playoffs in the first round and losing the Open Cup final along the way. 

RSL, on the other hand, finished the regular season strong and came up just three points shy of the LA Galaxy's Shield-winning point total. Those efforts ultimately went for naught, though, as RSL couldn't find a way to beat FC Dallas in the playoffs.

For the Crew, CCL probably represents their best chance at winning silverware anytime in the foreseeable future. For RSL, this is potentially the beginning of a history-making season. Either way, both teams will have plenty of motivation.

How they got here
  • Crew: Despite their struggles toward the end of the regular season, the Crew were pretty consistent in the CCL group. They won four of their six matches, including a victory over Santos Laguna at Crew Stadium, and finished second in the group.
  • RSL: The only blemish on the Lions' CCL resume was a loss at Cruz Azul that was being played in hurricane-like conditions. Even then, it took three goals from Cruz Azul after the 87th minute to pull out the victory and keep U.S. teams winless in Mexico. RSL ultimately repaid the favor at home and won the group, the first MLS team of the current CCL era to do so.
What's changed since CCL Group Stage 
  • Crew: It might be better to ask, What hasn't changed? Columbus has already cut ties with 10 players from last year's team, nine of whom played significant roles. They are also missing starting goalkeeper William Hesmer and backup Andy Gruenebaum, which means recently signed Ray Burse is likely going to get the start. Possible starters Shaun Francis, Dilly Duka, Eddie Gaven, Kevin Burns and Danny O'Rourke have all been battling injuries and it's still unclear which of them might play.
  • RSL: Very little has changed for RSL, other than perhaps gaining motivation. Robbie Findley is probably the most significant player to leave the team in the off-season, but he was only a part-time starter anyway. Fabian Espindola, Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio are all listed as probable, but it seems unlikely they'd all miss what the team has been trumpeting as one of their biggest games in their history.
Probable lineups
Head to head
  • The Crew wins if: Keeping it low scoring has to be the focus of the Crew. Their best hope probably lies in grinding out a 1-0 win in Columbus and then holding on for dear life at Rio Tinto Stadium. There's no question they are considerable underdogs, which could really play into their favor if they grab an early lead. People have been waiting for Rogers to break out for a couple years now, Tuesday would be a nice time for him to start showing his capable of being a leader.
  • RSL wins if: There's no question they are the more experience, talented and confident team. The key will be not panicking if things don't go their way early. Getting out of Crew Stadium tied, especially if they score a goal, should be enough.

Prediction: Is it impossible for the Crew to win this matchup? No, of course it isn't. But for anyone to pretend that a Crew victory would be anything less than a huge upset is just not being honest. RSL's biggest problem might be how they react to an early deficit. A loss on Tuesday wouldn't destroy their chances, but getting shut out is obviously problematic with the away-goal tiebreaker. Expect RSL to come out with a 1-0 victory.


Toluca Vs. Monterrey, CONCACAF Champions League Preview: An All-Mexican Quarterfinal Battle

The CONCACAF Champions League has long been dominated by Mexican clubs and recently that dominance has been even more pronounced. Since 2002, Mexican clubs have claimed seven of the nine tournaments. The last two tournaments, the only two that have been played in the league format as opposed to the previous cup format, have both seen a Mexican club defeating another Mexican club in the final.

In this edition of the tournament that will not be the case because while four of the eight remaining teams are Mexican clubs they are all on the same side of the bracket and only one will be able to make it to the final. One of the two all-Mexican quarterfinals matches Monterrey and Toluca and begins on Wednesday when Diablos Rojos play host to La Pandilla at Estadio Nemesio Diez.

While a match-up between two Mexican clubs this early in the tournament would normally mean some high quality soccer, that might not be the case because nobody is quite sure how seriously either club is going to take the tournament. While the tournament is meant to crown the best club in the region, it is not treated like the UEFA Champions League or Copa Libertadores and with some clubs, it takes a back seat to preparing for league matches.

Monterrey and Toluca played once in the Apertura and Monterrey came away on top, putting Toluca away 2-0 at home. They have yet to play in the Clausura, but Toluca is playing well and currently leads their group with 12 points from seven matches, while Monterrey is third in their group on 10 points in as many matches.

How they got here
  • Toluca: Despite being favorites to qualify out of their group, Toluca only did so as the second-place team in their group and needed some help on the final day to get through. Diablos Rojos picked up 10 points in the group stage, but had the Puerto Rico Islanders won on the final match day, they would have finished on 11 and eliminated Toluca.
  • Monterrey: After qualifying directly into the group stage, Monterrey had no problem qualifying first in their group. They topped the group on 16 points, six clear of second place and their only blemish was a 2-2 draw away to Saprissa.
What's changed since CCL Group Stage 
  • Toluca: A disappointing Apertura season saw Toluca miss out on the Liguilla, but they have a new manager in Sergio Lugo Barron and are already playing much better than they were prior to the new year.
  • Monterrey: The biggest of change for Monterrey is that they won the Apertura in December and are champions thanks to a goal from Humberto Suazo in the first leg and a pair of Suazo goals in the second leg.
Probable lineups
  • Toluca (4-5-1): Talavera - de la Torre, Duenas, Novaretti, Sepulveda- Zinha, Romagnoli, Esquivel, Calderon, Martinez - Corozo
  • Monterrey (4-4-2): Orozco - Meza, Basanta, Osorio, Ricardo - Perez, Cardozo, Martinez, Ayovi - Nigris, Suazo
Head to head
  • Toluca wins if: They can use their extra midfielder to take control of the center of the park. They've done this well in the Clausura and their midfield play is a big reason they've allowed just four goals in seven matches.
  • Monterrey wins if: They get Suazo some service. The Chilean striker is arguably the best striker in CONCACAF and if he gets enough service, he'll find the goals to put Monterrey through.


Toluca controls the play early on and gets a goal at home, but Suazo snatches a late equalizer to put Monterrey in control going home in the second leg.


CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals Preview: Brackets Will Create Variety

Whether it was a purposeful decision or just an amazing luck of the draw, this year's CONCACAF Champions League will have a much more inclusive feel than in years past. Since the tournament adopted its current format in 2008-09, no more than two non-Mexican Primera teams have made it to the semifinals. This year, by virtue of one half of the bracket being entirely populated by Mexican teams and the other half by non-Mexican teams, that will finally change.

Perhaps more importantly for U.S. soccer fans, at least one of those non-Mexican teams to advance will be an MLS side, another first in the current CCL era. The first match of the CCL quarterfinals will feature two MLS teams, Real Salt Lake and the Columbus Crew. Their opposing quarterfinal matchup will be begin on Thursday, and showcase Honduran power Olympia and Costa Rican giant Saprissa.

The Mexican side of the bracket will be populated by a virtual who's who of recent Primera success. Cruz Azul and Santos Laguna will play their first leg on Tuesday. Toluca and Monterrey, meanwhile will start their matchup on Wednesday.

The Crew-RSL match is the only one currently scheduled to air on Fox Soccer Channel, but the other three matches can be viewed on the CONCACAF TV website. SB Nation will provide previews and live coverage of all games as well.

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