CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals preview: It's back, and in the knockout stages

USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back, Champions League.

It's been five months since the CONCACAF Champions League group stage wrapped up. In fact, by the time Alajuelense take the field on Monday in the first match of the knockout stages, it will have been 226 days since they qualified for the quarterfinals.

And despite the long break, the inconsistent scheduling and massive roster changes, you can bet on one thing -- Mexican clubs will dominate. Again.

In the five years of the competition, Mexican clubs have won all five tournaments and were also runners-up in four. With three clubs left in this year's Champions League, who also happen to have been the top three seeds in the group stage, Mexico's superiority figures to continue.

Alajuelense vs. Arabe Unido

It's easy to dismiss ties that don't include Liga MX or MLS teams, but there is some reason, namely the rest of the region's inability to compete with teams from the top two leagues, but Alajuelense and Arabe Unido didn't get to the quarterfinals by accident. After all, Alajuelense topped Club America to win Group 4, while Arabe Unido bested the Houston Dynamo.

For Alajuelense, the group stage was an exhibition in excellent defense, as they conceded just one goal in four matches. Arabe Unido wasn't as good, surrendering three, but they did score seven goals to four for the Costa Ricans. Alajuelense are huge favorites -- this is as far as a Panamanian team has ever gotten in the competition -- and with seven Costa Rican internationals on the team, along with Honduran international Jerry Palacios, it's not hard to see why.

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Toluca

The San Jose Earthquakes didn't play the opening weekend of MLS so this will be their first match since October, while Toluca are second in Liga MX. Needless to say, this isn't much of a fair fight.

As if it wasn't bad enough that San Jose is playing their first match of the season, they are further hindered by a team that isn't especially good. The Quakes were undoubtedly unfortunate last season, with several players struggling through injuries, but this isn't one of the most talented teams in MLS even at full strength. Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi should help some, but he's the only significant addition to a team that lost Rafael Baca, Justin Morrow, Marvin Chavez and Steven Beitashour.

Meanwhile, Toluca are just three points off the pace in Liga MX with their only loss since Feb. 1 coming at the hands of first-place Cruz Azul. No team has allowed fewer goals in the Clausura, while Pablo Velazquez has scored as many by himself as they've conceded as a team -- five.

There shouldn't be too much concern that Toluca won't take the match seriously either, not after Velazquez and Edgar Benitez started on the bench last weekend. Even if Toluca don't take a complete first XI to San Jose, they should have enough firepower to seal up the tie before the home leg.

Sporting Kansas City vs. Cruz Azul

Two years ago, Sporting captured the U.S. Open Cup. Last year, they won MLS Cup. Next up is the Champions League.

Sporting started their MLS season off with a loss, but they also did it without Claudio Bieler, Chance Myers, Seth Sinovic, Uri Rosell and Paulo Nagamura, and at least some, if not all of them are supposed to be available on Wednesday. Peter Vermes has made the Champions League Sporting's focus and he held out players to that end, but now they need the results. They'll especially need a great first leg result because if they have any ground to make up going to Mexico City and that altitude for the second leg, they may as well quit.

A huge concern for Sporting will be the referee. While their fast and physical approach is successful in MLS, Cruz Azul are smaller players and CONCACAF referees sometimes call matches obnoxiously close, which would make things nearly impossible for SKC.

Of course, things may already impossible for SKC. Cruz Azul are top of Liga MX, led by Marco Fabian, Mauro Formica, Mariano Pavone and the third-best defense in Mexico.

MLS says they want to compete with the best in the region and that's what they got. Their defending champions against the best team from Mexico. Let's see how big that MLS/Liga MX gap really is.

LA Galaxy vs. Tijuana

If there was ever going to be a MLS/Liga MX rivalry, it would come between these two clubs. Between the stature of LA and their monopolization of the Southern California MLS market and Tijuana's attempts to build a club that straddles the border and draws upon all of Mexicali, this is a rivalry waiting to happen. All it needed was a few competitive matches to build it, and now that's what they have.

Tijuana have fallen from their perch as one of Liga MX's best, but they still sit in a Liguilla place thanks to the exploits of Cristian Pellerano. The midfielder has been remarkable sitting below strikers Herculez Gomez and Dario Benedetto, giving them five goals, which they need to counter a defense that has been a sieve all Clausura.

The problem for LA is they may struggle to take advantage of Xolos' defense. They'll create chances, but Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan struggled to score in their season opener, which was also a problem for stretches last season. Even if they can get looks at goal, and they should, it won't mean much without better finishing.

Regardless of the result, Xolos will have driven two hours north to Los Angeles and a week later, the Galaxy will drive two hours south to Tijuana. And both matches will not just matter, but they will be in the knockout stage for the CONCACAF title.

For a budding rivalry, this is a dream.

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