COMMERCE CITY, CO - JULY 28: Osvaldo Alonso #6 of the Seattle Sounders FC celebrates his game winning goal in the 65th minute with teammates Fredy Montero #10 and Fredy Montero #17 of the Seattle Sounders FC against the Colorado Rapids looks on at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on July 28, 2012 in Commerce City, Colorado. The Sounders defeated the Rapids 2-1. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
The 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League gets underway this week with a new format
The CONCACAF Champions League is officially minor league, becoming the only "major" tournament in the world that has three-team groups. Yes, three-team groups. That is actually a thing now, thanks to CONCACAF.
The tournament has taken major steps forward in recent years as MLS teams have showed they can compete with the Mexican powers, even if they haven't been able to top their rivals from south of the border. It's no longer the cakewalk for the Mexican clubs that it used to be, which makes it a real, honest tournament!
Of course, three-team groups is a good way to lessen the seriousness of the tournament, but torpedoing cool, fun things is what CONCACAF does. Consistency is important.
Toronto FC (Canada) vs. Aguila (El Salvador) - Wednesday, 8:00 p.m. ET
With a MLS playoff spot likely out of reach, Toronto has gone all in on the Champions League. The problem is that the third team in the group, Santos Laguna, should win the group. The Reds have turned up of late and Eric Hassli can do a good enough job replacing Danny Koevermans that topping Aguila should not be a problem. The Salvadorans lost their best player from last season and the Reds have done really well in the attack since Paul Mariner took over, but they absolutely have to get three points at BMO Field or they will no chance at getting out of the group.
Herediano (Costa Rica) vs. Real Salt Lake (USA) - Tuesday, 10:00 p.m. ET
The projected top two teams in the group square off in the opener and it comes in Heredia, where the Costa Rican side will look to turn things around after a disastrous Champions League last year. They finished dead last in their group and lost their first two matches at home before saving face with a win after they had already been eliminated. That one of their best attackers was sold to Saprissa will not help matters and Salt Lake will be gunning for a repeat of their run to the final two years ago. Kyle Beckerman should be able to handle things in the middle and Alvaro Saborio is red hot, making RSL the clear favorites, although road matches in CONCACAF are always a mess.
Olimpia (Honduras) vs. FAS (El Salvador) - Thursday, 10:00 p.m. ET
No group is as even as this one, where the Houston Dynamo might be the favorites, but the Honduran and Salvadoran powerhouses have a chance to top the group as well. For Olimpia, winning the group will require getting three points at home against FAS and that will likely come through Cristiano. The newly signed Brazilian will get a lot of the ball and attention from FAS, but keep an eye on Roger Rojas. The Honduran might be the best kept secret in CONCACAF and the Champions League might be his breakout party.
Seattle Sounders (USA) vs. Caledonia AIA (Trinidad and Tobago) - Thursday, 10:00 p.m. ET
The group favorites host the likely group cellar dwellers in the opening match. After being handed an incredibly difficult group last year, Seattle was handed a cake group this year. Caledonia barely got into this competition and Marathon is not as powerful as they have been in the past. Then there are the Sounders, who got out of their rigorous group last year and after a couple months of struggles are starting to find their form again. They don't even need top form to top Caledonia, who will be overwhelmed by Osvaldo Alonso, Mauro Rosales, Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson. The Sounders' sometimes shaky defense won't even be under threat.
Isidro Metapan (El Salvador) vs. Puerto Rico Islanders (Puerto Rico) - Wednesday, 10:00 p.m. ET
On paper, Puerto Rico doesn't have much of a chance. Of course, they have managed to thrive in the Champions League even when they have been outgunned before, but this Islanders team is not nearly as good as those from year's past. The LA Galaxy have always struggled in the Champions League, which opens the door for the Islanders and if they could somehow manage a point at Metapan they would be golden, but odds are that the defending Salvadoran champions have no problem riding Christian Bautista and Jorge Ramirez to an opening win.
UANL Tigres (Mexico) vs. Real Esteli (Nicaragua) - Wednesday, 10:00 p.m. ET
There is no doubt that Real Esteli are Nicaragua's best team, but being the best team in Nicaragua doesn't usually mean much in the Champions League. Meanwhile, Tigres are a flat out powerhouse that can stifle anyone with their defense. The Mexican club probably won't play their best players and it won't matter, either in their opener or later on against Alajuelense.
Monterrey (Mexico) vs. Chorrillo (Panama) - Tuesday, 8:00 p.m. ET
The two-time defending champions were gifted an easy group, making their slow start in the Apertura a non-issue. Monterrey have always taken the Champions League seriously, but at home against Chorrillo they don't need to play all of their best players. Humberto Suazo, Aldo de Nigris, Jesus Zavala, Darvin Chavez, Hiram Mier and Neri Cardozo can all sit and Monterrey probably still wouldn't have a problem.
W Connection (Trinidad and Tobago) vs. Xelaju (Guatemala) - Thursday, 8:00 p.m. ET
This is arguably the worst match that will be played all Champions League. W Connection won the league in Trinidad and Tobago, but that only means so much and Xelaju isn't exactly Comunicaciones or Municipal, the Guatemala sides that have been notable in this competition before. Xelaju are way down in eighth in the Apertura right now so W Connection has a chance in a match that is huge in the battle for second place in the group behind Chivas because let's be honest, the Goats have first place so that's been decided.