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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.
The Los Angeles Galaxy have been the best club in MLS over the last two full seasons, winning the 2010 Supporters' Shield and sitting atop the table this year. Their defense is strong enough that they got a shutout despite using a field player in goal for 47 minutes, and they didn't miss a beat while Landon Donovan was playing for the United States in the Gold Cup or while David Beckham was jetting off for, er, weddings and a friendly with his buddy Gary Neville. No matter the reasons or the obstacle, the Galaxy always seem to find a way to get the result they want.
Their reward for last season's stellar campaign is a spot in what will be the CONCACAF Champions League's group of death. LA will almost certainly not avoid Mexican opposition, the other qualifier for the group will be among Central America's giants, and Costa Rican champions Liga Deportiva Alajuelense is the group's weakest team. In any other group LDA would be optimistic about advancing; here, they're arguably the easy game.
Alajuelense is seeded into the group with LA, so we'll start with them. Unlike Deportivo Saprissa, who normally end up representing Costa Rica in the CCL, LDA doesn't have a litany of national team players suiting up in their red and black stripes. However, young defender Jose Salvatierra turned heads for Costa Rica in the recent Gold Cup (as well as the Copa America), while his teammate for club and country Jhonny Acosta was also first-choice in central defense. Going forward, the danger will come from creative forward Alejandro Alpizar and shifty striker Minor Diaz.
Morelia now sees themselves as the group favorite after easily advancing out of the preliminary round. Los Canarios have stocked themselves with a bevy of players with CCL experience: goalkeeper Federico Vilar, forward Rafael Marquez Lugo (both with Atlante), striker Miguel Sabah, midfielder Jaime Lozano, wide man Edgar Lugo, defender Joel Huiqui (all with Cruz Azul), and playmaker Damian Manso (Pachuca) have all played important roles in this tournament. Morelia may have trouble rotating their squad in the manner that Pumas UNAM or Cruz Azul have done in the past, but they still have more than enough talent to be LA's main competition in the race to win the group.
Motagua, the group's final qualifier, is coached by Ramon "El Primitivo" Maradiaga, who has coached the national teams of both Honduras and Guatemala along with assorted Central American clubs. He has a strong squad to call upon, including striker Jerry Bengtson (who is currently first-choice for Honduras). There is also experience in the form of ex-MLS players Ivan Guerrero, Milton Reyes, and especially Amado Guevara, who is a talismanic figure for the club. Intriguingly, Guillermo "El Pando" Ramirez - also a former MLS player - will be facing a Municipal side he played for in last year's CCL.
The bottom line on this group is that LA will get out of it what they put into it. If the Galaxy prioritize their pursuit of another Supporters' Shield and the MLS playoffs, they will likely send out reserves and find themselves with little hope of advancing. However, if LA can field a strong side in their home games - that means you have to play, Becks - the Galaxy should advance over Alajuelense and Motagua. A shot at first would not be out of the question, either, though it will be tough to overcome having one home game turn into a 50/50 split (or worse) when Morelia visits. We'll find out where this organization's priorities are when we see their lineup for their opening match.
FC Dallas may still have to qualify for this year's CONCACAF Champions League, but they are justifiably one of MLS's best hopes for the knockout stage. Dallas is in very strong form in league play, features one of the best defenses in the league, and has a legitimate MVP candidate in Brek Shea. If an MLS team is up to the job of getting through their CCL group, it's likely the red-hot Hoops
However, any talk of winning Group C must wait until after the qualifying round, where Schellas Hyndman and co. take on El Salvador's Alianza FC. Alianza got into the CCL by winning the the 2011 Clausura and are among El Salvador's most popular clubs. Los Paquidermos feature several regulars for the Salvadoran national team, including wingers Christian Castillo (a washout at DC United) and Julio Martinez (who met a similar fate with the Chicago Fire) and veteran striker Rudis Corrales. Unfortunately for Alianza, they'll be playing Dallas without Rodolfo Zelaya, whose star turn in the recent Gold Cup earned him a transfer to Russian club Alania Vladikavkaz.
Even with Zelaya, Alianza would very much be the underdog here. It is doubtful that Castillo and Martinez can create against a top MLS defense given their previous struggles in the league, and Corrales will probably struggle against George John and Ugo Ihemelu due to his lack of size. Dallas might not steamroll Alianza if they use second-choice players, but there is still little chance that Hyndman's well-drilled reserves will drop the ball if called upon.
In the group stage itself, Dallas will face competition from Pumas UNAM for first place. Pumas has a long commitment to very attack-minded play; this is a club that has no qualms about getting into a 4-3 shootout. In the past, Pumas has shown a tendency to mix in plenty of youth team players, yet they still tend to get results home and away in the CCL. It is also quite likely that Pizza Hut Park will see a rare big crowd when Pumas travels north, which could end up being a crucial factor in the race to win Group C.
Beyond Pumas, though, Dallas should have a fairly easy time. Toronto FC should have no problems qualifying over Real Esteli, and anyone that follows MLS knows that the Texans are miles ahead of TFC in just about every on-field category. However, this could be a double-edged sword if Dallas underestimates a Toronto team that appears to have added some quality pieces to their lineup. TFC managed to beat Cruz Azul and tie Real Salt Lake at BMO Field in last year's group stage, so Dallas will need to give a good account of themselves to take the expected victories from the Reds.
Tauro FC fills out Group C for Dallas. The Panamanians may be the rare team that can approach the level of speed and strength possessed by Dallas, but the similarities more or less end there. Dallas will do well to keep their heads against Tauro, who have some hot-headed players; staying calm amidst provocation could easily see Dallas playing up a man. In Tauro's previous CCL matches, they've also shown a tendency to tire rather easily, so keeping the ball and forcing them to chase would likely work in FCD's favor.
Ultimately, there's a pretty clear line between the two teams that should advance from this group and the two teams that likely will fight to avoid last. Dallas and Pumas are the class of Group C, and Dallas has a good enough squad to fancy themselves as a potential group winner. Dallas should be able to take the points they need to ensure qualification from Toronto and Tauro, so their biggest game is likely to be their home match against Pumas. Win that, and they'll have every chance at becoming the second MLS club to win a CCL group.
Toronto FC will enter this year's CONCACAF Champions League in their customary state of disarray. Head coach Aron Winter has of late one-upped the frenzied wheeling and dealing tradition set at the club by former GM Mo Johnston, the fans are justifiably growing short of patience, and the Reds haven't beaten anyone aside from the lowly Vancouver Whitecaps since May 7th. In other words, history is repeating itself.
Despite all that, Toronto has a chance to give themselves some positive momentum in the CCL. The draw for the qualifying round gave them arguably the easiest path to the group stage of anyone. Considering the fact that they could have drawn Honduran powerhouse Olimpia, Guatemala's Municipal, or the giant-killing Puerto Rico Islanders, drawing Real Esteli of Nicaragua was a tremendous let-off for a club that is usually unlucky.
This is not an attempt to disrespect Esteli, but Nicaraguan soccer is not exactly known for producing talent. Amongst Central American nations, their national team is generally only better than Belize. Even by CONCACAF standards, their club sides are minnows.
As a result of this, Toronto should look to finish this tie up in the first leg at BMO Field. Anything less than a big win would be a big disappointment, and a large lead would allow Winter to leave some big names home for the arduous (read: non-direct flight followed by 3+ hour bus ride) trip to Esteli's Estadio Independencia. TFC has a reputation of making easy things complicated for themselves, but there's no good reason that this should be one of them. Failure to qualify for Group C would be a bigger letdown than MLS's previous CCL low mark (the New England Revolution being demolished 6-1 by Joe Public FC of Trinidad & Tobago).
Assuming they get through to the group stage, things get much tougher. The top seed and heavy favorite in Group C is Pumas UNAM, winners of the most recent Mexican championship. Pumas will pose a very difficult challenge for the defensively-challenged Reds thanks to a group of forwards that include the elusive Juan Carlos Cacho and starlet Javier Cortes. Their defense is marshaled by Dario Veron, who you may have seen starting for Paraguay in the just-completed Copa America.
TFC's weakest opponent in the group will likely be Tauro FC of Panama, whose last run-in with an MLS club saw them upset Chivas USA in the 2008-2009 qualifying round. Still, "weakest" does not automatically mean "weak." While Toronto should be able to take 3-4 points from Tauro, they have plenty of talent. Tricky attacker Victor Mendieta and striker Temistocles Perez will present a threat to Stefan Frei's goal, while the defense will feature Luis Moreno, a veteran of the Panamanian national team. Moreno is probably more famous as the guy that kicked a stunned owl - which later died as a result - last year while playing in Colombia than he is for his actual play. At least Toronto fans won't have to figure out who to jeer when Tauro comes to town.
The other qualifiers to Group C will likely be FC Dallas, who are strong bets to advance over Alianza of El Salvador. Any MLS observer will note the gulf in class between Schellas Hyndman's side and Toronto, but one bit of good news for the Reds is that they'll have a familiar opponent. This opens the door to TFC springing the odd upset - MLS is full of strange mid-season results - or Dallas simply getting overconfident against a team they have every reason to look down on. Against a similarly high-flying MLS opponent last year, TFC managed a 1-1 home draw with Real Salt Lake; to advance this time, they'll probably have to turn that into a win.
Toronto's best CCL moment by far, and arguably their biggest win in club history, was last year's CCL triumph over Cruz Azul. Duplicating that win, and avoiding home-and-away losses to Dallas, will likely be required if TFC has designs on getting out of a group that features two indisputably stronger teams. It's going to take TFC's very best to make that happen; if Toronto opts to rest players in what will likely be a quixotic chase for an MLS playoff spot, they're going to struggle mightily.
One key factor will be when TFC gets to play at home. If they get to play their home games against Pumas and Tauro later in the schedule (the last four rounds are in the last 3 weeks of September and then one in mid-October), there's a chance that cold weather could play in their favor. It might seem like a stretch, but Toronto will likely need every break they can get to advance.
The Seattle Sounders have made a habit of taking every competition they're in seriously, and the CONCACAF Champions League is no different. In last year's edition, Seattle mixed starters, oft-used substitutes, and a handful of reserves, but found out the hard way that the CCL can be rather cruel. On three separate occasions, Seattle took a lead only to end up losing the game; they weren't the first MLS club to do that in CONCACAF play, and they probably won't be the last. The Sounders were competitive in every game, but ultimately seemed to lack the street smarts to escape what was a very difficult group.
This time around the group is easier, but the path is just as long. Seattle is back in the qualifying round after earning a second consecutive US Open Cup trophy, and they'll again be facing Central American opposition. This time around, the opponent is San Francisco FC of Panama, a team that the CCL has treated particularly harshly. The La Chorrera-based club has seen all of the bad outcomes the tournament can offer. They've finished dead last in a group (losing five and drawing once), and in qualifying they've been both upset by a tiny Caribbean club and utterly humiliated by a Mexican side. Still, they're one of the only clubs to participate in every CCL tournament, which underlines their status as one of Panamanian soccer's top dogs.
Despite that experience in the tournament, Seattle should be considered favorites to get to the group stage. San Francisco may feature a midfield that includes former Panamanian national team stalwart Manuel Torres in the engine room and current international Eybir Bonaga providing the creativity underneath burly former Colorado Rapids target man Roberto Brown, but their defense is extremely young aside from Colombian Freddy Arizala.
There are promising talents like Rolando Algandona and Luis Olivardia, but it's still a raw group that Seattle should be able to get the better of by playing quick combinations and moving intelligently off the ball. In other words, the Sounders already play the style of soccer that is most likely to cause San Francisco problems.
Should they advance, Seattle will once again face defending CCL champs Monterrey. Monterrey is so strong that they can afford to shuffle a player like Egidio Arevalo Rios - Copa America champion Uruguay's starting defensive midfielder - out on loan because they have other options. While veterans Osvaldo Martinez and Duilio Davino have departed, they've been replaced (in the case of Martinez, his replacement is Argentine Cesar Delgado, who previously played for Olympique Lyon in the "other" Champions League). Monterrey has arguably improved on last season's imperious side, and are easy favorites to win the group as well as the competition as a whole.
The good news is that it gets easier from there. Comunicaciones of Guatemala occupy the other seeded spot in the group, and they're a team that Seattle should be able to beat. That's not to say it will be easy; Las Cremas can call on some tough, disciplined players with international experience like defender Carlos Castrillo and midfielders Fredy Thompson and Rigoberto Gomez. The wonderfully-named Transito Montepeque will be relied on to supply the goals, which were in short supply during their last appearance in the CCL (2009-2010). The Sounders should have the defensive chops to keep Comunicaciones off the scoreboard, but then the Guatemalans will be hoping to do the same to Seattle. Both games against them are likely to be close, tense affairs with relatively few chances either way.
The final group spot will likely go to CS Herediano of Costa Rica, who should have little trouble with Guyanese club Alpha United. Alpha did take the Puerto Rico Islanders to overtime in the Caribbean Football Union's title game, but this was part of a cinderella run; just getting that far in such a minor tournament was considered a huge shock.
Assuming Herediano gets through, they may find the going a bit tough in Group D. There is some very promising young talent available for coach Alejandro Giuntini, especially holding midfielder Jose Miguel Cubero and goalkeeper Leonel Moreira, both of whom were in Costa Rica's squads for the recent Gold Cup and Copa America tournaments. However, there is likely not enough defensive quality throughout the squad; Seattle should be able to test Moreira often. Los Rojiamarillos will have some attacking quality, however, with former New England Revolution playmaker Jose Cancela playing underneath physical forward Victor Nunez.
Seattle's task is not without potential pitfalls, but Herediano and Comunicaciones are not well-balanced teams. If you could combine them into one team, they'd be a real threat, but the fact that Seattle is good at both attacking and defending should be enough to take advantage of Herediano's fragility and the fact that Comunicaciones will struggle offensively. Topping Monterrey is probably a bridge too far for the Sounders - or anyone in this tournament, frankly - but second place is a completely reasonable goal for Sigi Schmid's side.
With the preliminary stage of CONCACAF Champions League getting ready to kick off on Tuesday, we figured the best way to look at this tournament was from the perspective of the five MLS teams that will be participating. The Los Angeles Galaxy (Supporters' Shield) and Colorado Rapids (MLS Cup) earned direct entry into the group stage, while FC Dallas (MLS Cup runner-up), Seattle Sounders (U.S. Open Cup) and Toronto FC (Nutrilite Canadian Championship) will all have to play in the qualifying round.
In this stream, you'll find write-ups on all five MLS teams and what challenges await them.
In the meantime, here's a schedule of their games:
Seattle Sounders vs. San Francisco FC
Toronto FC vs. Real Esteli
FC Dallas vs. Alianza
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