The draw for the 2011-2012 CONCACAF Champions League is in the books and one thing is abundantly clear. The region is getting better. That's not to say that all of a sudden these CONCACAF teams are ready to compete with the South American clubs or even more blasphemous, the European clubs, but there's not doubt that the region is getting better.
Last season's tournament was evidence of a change in the region. Teams from outside of Mexico were making an impact. Real Salt Lake went all the way to the final and in the group stage finished ahead of Cruz Azul. Saprissa stayed strong, advancing out of their group where they played eventual tournament winners Monterrey tough. Toluca barely advanced out of their group, needing two results on the final day of the stage just to get through to the knockout stages.
The Mexican Primera Division is still undoubtedly the top league in the region, but they're not untouchable anymore. Clubs from throughout the region can knock off some of the Mexican clubs. The next step will be for a non-Mexican club to win the tournament, something that hasn't been done since it went to a league format in 2008, but it will happen sooner rather than later.
When one takes a look at the draw for this year's tournament, it isn't so easy to pick out the winners. The Mexicans are still good and MLS has some good teams as well, but there are several others that are formidable. Starting as early as the group stage and even with a couple of the preliminary stage ties, there is quality that is a testament to the growth of CONCACAF.
With that, CONCACAF is set for their best Champions League yet. Teams are better and prioritizing the Champions League unlike before. The quality of play is a level above what it used to be because many teams are up to the challenge, again unlike before.
The region is undoubtedly improving, but it's not several dozen teams deep yet. For the most part, it is only good once it gets to the 16-team group stage. There are several lopsided match-ups in the preliminary stage as 16 teams battle in two-legged playoffs to join the eight teams that earned straight entry to the group stage so it's not worth a tie by tie breakdown. That said, there is one very intriguing match-up.
Mexican clubs are usually play reserves int he preliminary stage and still have no problem going through, but Santos Laguna will not have that luxury this year because they have drawn Olimpia. The Honduran club played well a year ago, topping Toluca in their group before falling to Saprissa in the quarterfinals. With young wunderkind Roger "RoRo" Rojas up top, a year after scoring five goals in the competition, Santos will not be able to sleepwalk past Olimpia.
There is no doubt that the toughest group in the tournament is Group A. The Los Angeles Galaxy are defending MLS Supporters Shield winners and with Landon Donovan and David Beckham, they have star power. The weird part could be the very real possibility that LA advances out of their group, but by the time the knockout stages start in 2012 are playing without Donovan, Beckham or Juan Pablo Angel. Same competition, very different team.
While LA is one favorite to advance, so is the Mexican club they will likely have in their group. The loser of the Clausura final between Morelia and Pumas will almost certainly get past a Caribbean team in the preliminary stage and then will go into Group A. Whichever club it is, it will be one of Mexico's best with players like Rafael Marquez Lugo and Adrian Aldrete or Israel Castro and Juan Cacho in the team.
The Galaxy and whichever Mexican club is in the group are not sure bets to advance though. Costa Rican clubs have always done well in the competition and Alajuelense will certainly challenge the two favorite in Group A. The 2004 CONCACAF champions, Alajuelense are coming off of both the winter 2010 and summer 2011 Costa Rican championships so they are strong.
Rounding things out is Motagua or Municipal, whichever wins the preliminary stage playoff. With Motagua winners of the Honduras Clausura and Municipal runners-up in the past two Guatemalan seasons, they are no pushovers. Whoever gets into Group A will be picked to finish last, but as far as least likely teams to advance go, these two are pretty damn good.
Whoever wins the tantalizing preliminary stage tie between Santos Laguna and Olimpia will go into Group B, where either very well could be favorites. Olimpia proved their quality last season and could step in and win their group again if they can win their preliminary stage tie, but odds are it is Santos. Coming off of an average Clausura season, Santos still has one of the most dangerous teams in Mexico. With Christian Benitez getting healthy, they will undoubtedly be favorites in this group if they do as expected and beat Olimpia.
Second favorites would be the Colorado Rapids. They qualified straight to the knockout stage because of their 2010 MLS Cup title, but they did it with a magical playoff run after a mediocre regular season. This season they haven't set the world on fire either, although they've had to play through their fair share of injuries. Even so, they are not the most powerful of teams in MLS, but are lucky to have landed in a soft group.
The last time Honduras' Real Espana qualified for continental competition was in 2000 so it has been a while. Unfortunately for them, it will probably be a short stay. They won the 2010 Apertura, but didn't even qualify for the 2011 Clausura playoffs and don't have a ton to work with.
The final team in the group will be the winner of the preliminary stage playoff between Metapan and the Caribbean champion. Puerto Rico Islanders have performed well in continental competition, but that has been about it for the region, while Metapan is one of El Salvador's best that gives the group a solid final team, although one unlikely to advance out of the group.
The team that will definitely be a favorite to advance is the Mexican club in the group. Whether Morelia or Pumas wins the Clausura, they will step right into Group C as the runaway favorites. They might not just be favorites in the group either. They could step in and right away be favorites to win the entire tournament.
One thing will determine the strength of Group C and that is David Ferreira. The Colombian midfielder broke his ankle earlier this season and how long he will be out for is unclear so whether he can return for the group stage, which begins in August, is still very much a question. If he can return, Group C has another good team in FC Dallas that will likely be one of the favorites to advance.
Whoever represents Canada, either Toronto FC or the Vancouver Whitecaps, they will be favored to get past a Nicaraguan team in the preliminary stage. That will likely be about it for them though. The two Canadian teams are among the worst in MLS and it is unlikely they have much of a chance to advance to the knockout stages.
The same will be said of Tauro, who won the 2010 Panamanian Apertura. Teams from Panama have had little success in the Champions League and Tauro didn't do well in the 2011 Clausura so they can hardly be called a power team from the country.
When you are defending tournament champions with arguably the best player in the region on your team, you are probably favorites in your group. Monterrey and Humberto Suazo, you are favorites to win Group D. You are one of the favorites to win the entire tournament. This one doesn't require a ton of explanation.
It is expected that the Seattle Sounders get past San Francisco in the preliminary stage and they probably step forward as second favorites. The group isn't too strong, but what could determine Seattle's fate though is how they perform in the next few months in MLS. If, like last season, they need a late season push to make the MLS Playoffs, the Champions League becomes an afterthought for them.
Comunicaciones will get everyone a run for their money though. Guatemala doesn't have the strongest of leagues, but Comunicaciones dominated it in winning the 2010 Apertura and 2011 Clausura titles. With Guatemalan national team vice-captain Fredy Thompson manning the midfield, Comunicaciones is strong down the center and no pushover.
Odds are Herediano win their preliminary stage playoff and slide into Group D. Herediano isn't the best Costa Rica has to offer, but if Seattle doesn't prioritize Champions League and Comunicaciones slips up, they are more than capable of sliding up to second place.