The CONCACAF Champions League knockout round can be depended upon to entertain, even if the end result is usually one Mexican team beating another for our region's spot in the Club World Cup. Last year's quarterfinal round tempted us all into thinking that things could change after a tight set of first legs, only for the underdogs to get clobbered in Mexico (with scorelines like 8-0 and 6-1 popping up). Toronto FC's attempt at springing a real shock saw them beat the LA Galaxy and take two leads at Santos Laguna before eventually getting torn to shreds in the final 45 minutes of their semifinal tie.
Still, there's at least some reason to be hopeful that this time will be different. For the first time, a Mexican club - Chivas Guadalajara - failed to get out of their group, while MLS's remaining three representatives look a bit stronger than last year (where an awful Toronto FC somehow ended up being the league's best representative). CONCACAF's switch from six to eight groups has resulted in the quarterfinals being seeded rather than a random draw, giving the tournament a more just feel.
Rather than preview each team or each quarterfinal pairing, we're going to approach the return of the CCL with an American favorite: Power Rankings!
8. CS Herediano
Herediano's success in the group stage was built on a sound defense - they only conceded one goal in four matches - but also owed a lot to a very disappointing showing by Real Salt Lake. There were also some unusual slices of luck for the Costa Ricans, like RSL losing two center backs (one to a red card, one to injury) in a five minute span, and left back Waylon Francis scoring the goal of his life in a 1-0 win at Tauro FC.
Currently outside the Costa Rican playoffs on goal differential, Herediano is one of many teams in the Primera Divisíon lumped in the middle (essentially it's CS Cartagínes way in front of everyone, Herediano and nine others, and two stragglers at the bottom). That said, their defense has been surprisingly loose by their standards - 15 goals against in 10 matches - and they'll need to step up to another level to advance further in CCL play.
Up top, Yendrick Ruiz is the most potent goal threat, but Herediano is more of a "goals by committee" sort of team. Playmaker Yosimar Arias can be dangerous from set pieces, but is only likely to enter as a substitute as he is not particularly interested in defending. The real story is the central block of four, consisting of center backs Cristian Montero and Pablo Salazar and defensive midfielders Jose Miguel Cubero and Esteban Granados. Whether in a 4231 or 442, the latter two form a strong double-pivot ahead of the heady pair in the heart of the Herediano back four. If that group doesn't come up big, Herediano will almost certainly crash out.
7. CSD Xelajú M.C.
Xelajú may generate a reaction of "Who?" when brought up, but they deserve some recognition. Chivas Guadalajara's elimination at their hands in the group stage - via the head-to-head away goals tiebreaker - marked the first time a Mexican club was eliminated from the CCL by a non-Mexican club. Allan Alemán's 79th minute goal at Estadio Omnilife on the final day of the group round was dramatic, but that was a trend for the Quetzaltenango-based club. Los Superchivos scored five of their seven group stage goals in the final half hour of their games, including substitute Edgar Chinchilla's two-goal cameo at W Connection hauling back a 2-0 deficit.
That said, their domestic form is rather disappointing. Xelajú currently sit 10th in the twelve-team Liga Nacional de Guatemala (though admittedly they're just three points out of 4th). They enter their tie with Monterrey on the back of two straight shutout losses (1-0 at home to CD Mictlán and 3-0 at CD Malacateco-Coatepeque, which I encourage you to say out loud).
Still, head coach Hernan Medford - you might know him as the scorer of the only goal in Mexico's only World Cup Qualifying loss at Estadio Azteca - had his side playing without fear against Chivas, and it seems unlikely that they'll lay down for the heavily favored Rayados. Expect Medford's side to apply high pressure all over the field.
Costa Rican striker Alejandro Alpízar is likely their most vital player going forward, and Medford has a knack for getting goals off the bench. At the back, goalkeeper Fernando Patterson can be unorthodox, but also looks like he thrives under pressure. While an upset would be a shock, it's not an unthinkable prospect against a Monterrey side that is in poor form this season.
It might be a bit of a surprise to see Seattle - technically the #3 seed after sweeping their group - listed down here. However, the offseason departures of Fredy Montero and Jeff Parke have left big holes in their line-up, and Obafemi Martins has not been signed yet to help the Sounders going forward.
There's also that unpleasant opening day 1-0 loss at home against the Montreal Impact. While the Sounders hit the woodwork twice, they also left Troy Perkins without too much to do for much of the game as their quality build-up play was routinely spoiled by a poor final ball. The fact that far too many of those final balls were attempts at crossing also left Seattle looking a bit one-note without Montero.
More worrisome was the ease with which the Impact created quality chances with their patient possession-based game. Marco Di Vaio really should have scored two goals on chances that were not that difficult to manufacture. Sure Seattle was without Osvaldo Alonso, but the rest of the midfield looked lightweight defensively, and that doesn't bode well against a powerhouse like Tigres.
Even Seattle's group stage success is working against them, as they'll have to go on the road on short rest to play the best team they'll see in 2013. If they had done worse, they'd at least get to stay in Seattle for the first leg.
Houston got through their group despite playing mostly reserves in all four games (example: Will Bruin played all of 6 minutes in the four matches). Despite the presence of Honduran powerhouse CD Olimpia, Dominic Kinnear's B team avoided slip-ups and benefited from Olimpia's 2-1 loss at CD F.A.S. One got the sense that the good news was met with a shrug for a Dynamo side that notoriously puts more weight on their league performance.
Kinnear kept his entire MLS Cup starting eleven together, but Calen Carr's torn ACL in that game looms large. Kinnear's solution in Houston's season opener was to use Giles Barnes in a free role between Bruin and the Dynamo midfield, but results are at this point mixed. Despite having the better of play against D.C. United, Houston labored for long stretches to turn territorial control into genuine chances. They eventually broke through, but only via United right back James Riley's misplaced header.
There is also a big question over the team Houston will send out. If Kinnear doesn't want to start too many players on short rest, he's going to have to field another CCL reserve team. That worked in the group stage, but against Santos Laguna it would be a likely recipe for humiliation, even if certain back-ups like Warren Creavalle and Luiz Camargo are probably up for the challenge.
4. LA Galaxy
On paper, LA arguably ended up in the easiest group of the previous round. Despite the presence of the Puerto Rico Islanders - their tormenters in the 2010-2011 qualifying round - the group looked like a cakewalk. After starting a strong team in in Matchday Two's 5-2 win over AD Isidro Metapan, Bruce Arena more or less used the CCL as an extension of the reserve league. Even with the second-stringers in, the Galaxy often barely looked like they were having to extend themselves.
Their good fortune has continued in the quarterfinals, where they're up against Herediano. RSL's struggles against the Costa Ricans had less to do with any outstanding players or tactical brilliance than on the Utah side's over-reliance on Alvaro Saborio and the lack of a Plan B when faced with a well-drilled, compact defense. The fact that the Galaxy tend to play with more width than RSL already promises to get better results, as Herediano won't be able to simply congest the center of the field.
Of course, LA would be much stronger if they still had a certain Englishman switching the point of attack, or if Landon Donovan were not currently on trial with a Cambodian village team. Then again, looking at how they stuffed the Chicago Fire to start the season, maybe all they really need is Mike Magee.
3. CF Monterrey
Monterrey's performance in Group 7 was simply imperious: Four games played, four games won, 15 goals scored, none conceded. They ended up being the highest-scoring team and also the stingiest. CSD Municipal and Chorrillo FC are probably still wondering just what hit them.
Unfortunately for Victor Manuel Vucetich, you can't save good form up for future use. If he could, he'd surely dip into the reserves at the moment. Los Rayados have dropped four of their last five in Liga MX play, and they were hardly playing a slate of Liguilla contenders. Aldo De Nigris has played well, but his five goals account for nearly half of Monterrey's unimpressive haul of eleven.
At times, Monterrey simply seems to have hit one of those inexplicable low ebbs that teams hit after years together. Their starting eleven has remained more or less unchanged for what seems like years, and things have gotten a bit stale. If a Mexican side is going to go out this early, it's going to be Monterrey.
That said, any team featuring De Nigris and Humberto Suazo is going to be strong favorites against virtually anyone in CONCACAF, and that is the case here. They may be in middling form, but they're still contenders.
2. Club Santos Laguna
Runners-up in last year's CCL, Santos have shown a distinct knack at making the final in knockout play. They've made the final in three of the last five Liguillas to go with last year's 3-2 aggregate loss to Monterrey in the CCL. That's a strong record, but only winning one of those four ties with a cup on the line will raise at least some questions about this team's ability to finish the job.
That said, getting to the CCL final again will be very difficult. Houston has a strong record of being very tough against Mexican clubs, and if Los Guerreros see off the Dynamo they'll likely be playing Tigres UANL in the semifinal round. It could very well be that winning the final will be easier than actually getting there.
Santos is normally seen as a team with an overwhelming attack, but at the moment it's their defense doing the heavy lifting. Pedro Caixinha's men have let up just 6 goals in Liga MX play, allowing Santos to stay among the playoff teams despite struggling to score (at least until this past Friday's 3-1 win over Chiapas).
Despite their low goal-scoring total, Houston should be very worried about their trip to Estadio Corona. In last year's CCL knockout round, Santos scored six goals against MLS competition twice (6-1 over Seattle, 6-2 over Toronto FC). That would be something of a surprise given their current scoring form, but you can't rule it out when Santos is trying to select their forwards from Oribe Peralta, Herculez Gomez, Carlos Darwin Quintero, and Christian Suarez.
1. Tigres UANL
The overwhelming favorites, Tigres are unbeaten in Liga MX and have a deep enough roster that their second team could probably make the Liguilla. They have just about everything you could want: A savvy, experienced head coach in Tuca Ferretti, tremendous depth, great on-field leadership in the form of players like Lucas Lobos and Carlos Salcido, and skillful attackers like Danilinho and Emanuel Villa. On paper, they look like Monterrey's successor as CONCACAF's true juggernaut.
Ah, but not so fast! Villa is out for a month with a calf injury, depriving Tigres of a player who had scored 8 times in 9 matches in the Clausura. Alan Pulido seems like a probable replacement, but "Tito" is on fire and it's hard to say what his injury will do to Tigres in terms of confidence.
There has also been a slight drift in form of late for Tigres. Whereas they started the season with four straight wins and a 9-1 goal differential, they haven't had a shut out in their last five matches. Further, their last three home games have ended in draws. An inability to finish teams off has stopped Tigres from running away from the pack in Mexico, and could provide the Sounders with a glimmer of hope.