CONCACAF Champions League play kicks off on Tuesday with games involving the LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, and Monarcas Morelia. On Wednesday, UNAM Pumas and FC Dallas play the week's marquee fixture.
Very slowly but very surely, the standard of play in the CONCACAF Champions League is improving. Once a joke of a competition in which both Major League Soccer and Mexican Primera Division sides played B teams almost exclusively, the tournament is now played at a very high level. Though not as big as Copa Libertadores, the tournament is now comparable to the Asian and African Champions Leagues in prestige and quality, and as the fantastic 2011 final between Real Salt Lake and Monterrey proved, the competition is no longer a minor footnote in North American soccer.
The Los Angeles Galaxy appear to be in the "group of death," but for perhaps the first time ever, an argument can be made for multiple groups. None of the 16 teams remaining is a low-quality, walkover team and every single team from Major League Soccer and the Mexican Primera will have to fight to get out of the group stages. Before a group stage game has been played, a simple glance at the four groups indicates that this will likely be the best edition of the CONCACAF Champions League ever played.
The opening round of fixtures will take place between Tuesday and Thursday of this week, with every single fixture featuring a team from either MLS or the Mexican Primera. In-depth previews of every MLS team in CCL can be found here.
Group B: Santos Laguna vs. Real España
Tuesday, 8:00 pm ET
Under Ruben Omar Romano, CONCACAF Champions League was not a priority for Santos Laguna, who regularly played reserve teams. Under Diego Cocca, the team seems to be taking a different approach. A first-choice team barely advanced past Olimpia in the preliminary stages, and now has to deal with a tough group. Real España finished third in Honduras's regular season last year before winning the league in the playoffs, and will provide Santos with a serious test on Tuesday night in Torreon.
Group A: Alajuelense vs. Monarcas Morelia
Tuesday, 10:00 pm ET
Alajuelense and Morelia would have been near-locks for the knockout stages of the competition in earlier years, but they could easily finish third and fourth in a loaded Group A. Alajuelense are the most recent champions of Costa Rica and have a number of full Costa Rican internationals, supplemented by some quality players from South America. Morelia, the most recent runners-up in Mexico, will likely be happy with a point on the road.
Group A: LA Galaxy Vs. Montagua
Tuesday, 10:00 pm ET
Last year's MLS Supporters' Shield winners have been handed an extremely difficult to navigate group, especially considering that the CONCACAF Champions League has not been kind to them recently. Montagua features a few Honduran internationals, including 35-year-old legend Amado Guevera. Younger internationals Jerry Bengston and Jonny Leveron are the club's big stars and likely won't stick around for very long. The Galaxy will have their hands full, and it will be interesting to see how Bruce Arena manages his squad between CCL and the league.
Group D: Seattle Sounders vs. Comunicaciones
Tuesday, 10:00 pm ET
Independent of the fact that Seattle's fans probably take CCL more seriously than any other MLS team, the Sounders will be expected to get three points on Tuesday night. Group D is a tough one, and if the Sounders are going to advance to the knockout stages, they will leave themselves a serious uphill battle if they do not win at home against arguably the weakest team in the group. Comunicaciones have won the last two tournaments in Guatemala, but both Monterrey and Herediano are deeper sides, with Monterrey possessing arguably the most talented squad in North American football.
Group D: Herediano vs. Monterrey
Wednesday, 8:00 pm ET
With a massive weekend fixture against Chivas de Guadalajara coming up, Monterrey might not play their first choice XI in Costa Rica this week. That will be music to the ears of the Herediano fans, but the bad news is that Monterrey is insanely deep. Their second XI is competitive with any team on the continent, and they will still be fighting for points.
Group B: Colorado Rapids vs. Idrisio Metapan
Wednesday, 10:00 pm ET
Between their fight for an MLS playoff spot and their steady stream of injury troubles, the Colorado Rapids are going to have a very difficult time deciding what to do with their team selection on Wednesday. Realistically they would like to compete for both trophies, but in their current situation, that could ultimately lead to them failing in both. Metapan struggled to reach this stage as they were pushed to the end by Puerto Rico Islanders in the preliminary stage, but they have strong squad and would seriously challenge a Rapids reserve team.
Group C: UNAM Pumas Vs. FC Dallas
Wednesday, 10:00 pm ET
If the CONCACAF Champions League group stages have a marquee matchup, this is it. UNAM Pumas and FC Dallas are unquestionably competitors for their domestic titles this season, and they arguably play some of the most attractive football in their respective leagues. Brek Shea and Javier Cortes are two of the most exciting young players on the continent and both are in excellent form. A trip to the Estadio Universitario is going to be a tough one for FC Dallas, and it will be interesting to see if their young stars are up to the task. Pumas might hold back a couple of their starters, but their youth system and reserve players are some of the best up and coming talents in North America.
Group C: Tauro FC Vs. Toronto FC
Thursday, 8:00 pm ET
Hopefully, a day will come when the Canadian Championship cup competition is either gone or much more competitive. Because of the presence of Canadian teams in MLS and current rules, it has to exist, so the very poor Toronto FC are in CONCACAF Champions League. The good news is that the additions of Torsten Frings and Danny Kovermans have made them a much better team, though it's unclear whether or not either will play Thursday. The good news for Toronto is that, while Tauro won the 2010 Apertura in Panama, they're a fairly average side right now, so this game should be competitive.