Some have criticized CONCACAF for instituting three-team groups in the Champions League. It's indicative of a tournament not taken seriously and not acting seriously, they claimed. And I claimed it too.
But the three-team groups do have one saving grace -- they make even the early matchdays hugely important. Groups can essentially be won as early as Matchday 2, and teams can be eliminated for all intents as purposes just as quickly. And look where we find ourselves now, Matchday 2.
W Connection vs. Houston Dynamo - The Champions League is a step too big for W Connection. Last year they were waxed in the competition and it happened again in their tournament opener this year, when they were beaten 3-1 by Arabe Unido. Now they host the Houston Dynamo, who many think will win Group 1, and if they don't win then their Champions League dreams are all but dead.
A year ago, the Dynamo won their group, only to be undone by Santos Laguna in the quarterfinals. They're positioned to advance to the knockout stages once again and doing so requires taking three points in Trinidad and Tobago.
Real Esteli vs. Olimpia - Win at home, draw away. That's the formula for success in tournaments and unfortunately for Real Esteli, they have already deviated from it with a home loss to Sporting Kansas City in the opener. A loss or draw to Olimpia on Wednesday, again at home, will bring their competition to an end, while Olimpia need to show they can handle life on the road in the Champions League.
Last year, the Hondurans managed just one point in two away matches and it cost them a spot in the knockout stages. This will be Olimpia's best chance at an away result and they need to take it.
Cruz Azul vs. Herediano - While the Mexican and American clubs have taken over the Champions League -- the Mexicans especially -- Herediano have acquitted themselves well, highlighted by a place in the quarterfinals a year ago. A 6-1 away win in their opener only kept their hopes high, but a trip to Mexico City will be a real measure of their quality.
Cruz Azul are fifth in Liga MX, in large part due to the fabulous play of Joao Rojas, and they're clear favorites to win Group 3, but Real Salt Lake were favorites to win their group last year and Herediano pipped them for it. Even if Herediano play well, Cruz Azul is almost certain to win at home, but Herediano can make a statement that they can hang with their Mexican opponents and set the stage for a massive rematch on the final match day in Costa Rica when a spot in the knockout stages may be on the line.
Sporting San Miguelito vs. Alajuelense - An opening loss to Club America at home likely ended Sporting San Miguelito's chances at advancing from their group, but they certainly proved they can play at a high level. They frustrated America in their 1-0 loss and are expected to do the same to Alajuelense, who have the best chance of challenging America for a knockout stage place.
Alajuelense has plenty of Champions League experience, having qualified for three straight tournaments, and once again they have a tough draw with America in the group. But the Costa Ricans only finished one point behind Tigres a year ago and if they can match America's win in Panama on Thursday, they will have a chance to take first place in the group on Matchday 3 when they host America.
Heredia vs. Montreal Impact - The Impact's first foray into the Champions League started well as they upended the San Jose Earthquakes 1-0, but now they get their first road test. Luckily, Heredia provides them a relatively easy start to their road campaign and if they can get a win, they may have a stranglehold of the group by the time they next play on September 17.
Comunicaciones vs. Toluca - It's pretty tough to essentially win a group after two matchdays, but that's what Toluca can do on Thursday. After beating Caledonia AIA to start their tournament, Toluca can make it six points from two matches with a win over Comunicaciones and with that match in Guatemala, it would just about bury the Los Cremas. A win over Comunicaciones would allow Comunicaciones to put their continental competition on the back burner and focus on the Liga MX Apertura, which they would love to do after a decent enough, but not specular start to their season.
Victoria vs. Tijuana - The schedule makers didn't do Tijuana any favors, making them start with consecutive away matches, but they didn't do themselves any favors in their opener either. Unimaginative, timid and unable to crack the Luis Angel Firpo defense, Xolos had to settle for a scoreless draw in El Salvador, which is a fine enough result, but turns what should have been a group they ran away from into a decently competitive one.
Victoria don't figure to challenge Tijuana much, but Firpo didn't either. A convincing win over Victoria followed by a home win over Firpo on Matchday 3 would put Xolos well in front of the pack, where most expected them to be, but they have some work to do if they want to end up there and that begins on Tuesday in Honduras.
LA Galaxy vs. Cartagines - Isidro Metapan was supposed to be the Galaxy's challenger in Group 8, but Cartagines put that talk to rest on Matchday 1 and threw down the gauntlet to LA with a 4-2 win at Metapan. Now the Costa Ricans are sitting pretty with three points and head to LA knowing that a draw gives them four points with two home matches to play.
After the result Cartagines got in El Salvador, the Galaxy need three points at home and while Saturday's win over Real Salt Lake may give them momentum heading into Tuesday's tilt, they have plenty to be weary of. Leading the list of concerns is Pablo Herrera, Cartagines' potent frontman who notched a hat trick at Metapan and could cause LA's leaky defense fits. Cartagines made a statement with their opening win, and Herrera made his own personal statement, putting the onus on the Galaxy to take nothing less than three points on Tuesday and take control of the group or their Champions League stay may be a short one.