The inaugural CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals took place this past week with Mexican teams continuing their dominance of the region’s premier cross-border club prize.
In 43 years of the antecedent Champions’ Cup tournament, Mexican clubs lifted the trophy on 24 occasions.
Atlante, Cruz Azul, and Santos Laguna remain alive this year in a draw that increasingly resembles last season’s UEFA tournament when it took English teams to eliminate English teams.
Mexico’s only casualty so far are Universidad Nacional—2-0 aggregate losers to Cruz Azul in the quarter-finals.
The semi-finals see Santos Laguna hosting Atlante while Cruz Azul travel to meet Puerto Rico Islanders—an unlikely opponent from United Soccer Leagues First Division, the second tier of professional soccer in North America.
Puerto Rico, along with their USL adversaries Montreal Impact, have breathed life into an otherwise stale competition that has failed to gather the public’s interest.
The Islanders, under the guidance of former Northern Ireland striker Colin Clarke, qualified for the first time in their six-year history via the Caribbean Championship.
Clarke’s men caused a huge shock in the preliminary round by defeating Costa Rican powerhouse Alajuelense 3-2 on aggregate—a team that won the Champions’ Cup as recently as 2004.
Their successful run continued when, after narrowly emerging from the group stages, they prevailed 3-1 on aggregate against Marathón of Honduras to reach the last four.
The Irishman has had mixed experiences in his managerial career in the U.S. over the last decade with abrupt stints at a number of lower level clubs.
His sole MLS appointment at FC Dallas ended in dismay at the end of 2006 when he was dismissed for failing to translate three years of promising regular season form into playoff success.
In two years with the Islanders, Clarke has transformed a team of USL also-rans into championship contenders. They finished top of the regular season table last year before losing the play-off title decider 2-1 against Vancouver Whitecaps.
Clarke’s popularity with the natives has escalated to the point that he now combines his club role with that of Puerto Rican national team manager.
Montreal appeared certain to become the second USL team to reach the semi-finals when they took a 2-1 half-time lead against Santos Laguna in Torreón to build a 4-1 aggregate advantage.
Santos’ Argentine striker Matias Vuoso scored twice as Montreal dangerously retreated toward their own penalty area, but the hosts still needed two goals as normal time expired.
Unbelievably, Colombian international Carlos Quintero supplied the required strikes in the third and fourth minutes of injury time to complete an amazing turnaround as the Canadians shriveled under relentless pressure.
Despite such a cruel exit, the entire Montreal soccer community can be proud of their team’s progression to the quarter-finals.
While the tournament has been characterised by feeble attendances, Impact have impressed with average crowds approaching 20,000 for their five home games—almost 7,000 higher than any other club.
Their first leg encounter with Santos Laguna was switched from their 13,034 capacity Stade Saputo to the adjacent Olympic Stadium to meet unprecedented demand for tickets—a staggering 55,571 fans inspired a 2-0 win for the 2008 Canadian Cup winners.
Montreal were in the running for one of two MLS expansion slots being granted in 2011. Liverpool co-owner George Gillett expressed his interest in jointly investing with club owner Joey Saputo, but the bid was rescinded last November stating concerns around meeting the necessary capital requirements in the current economic environment.
The success of the two USL clubs proved to be an acute embarrassment for Major League Soccer. New England Revolution and Chivas USA stumbled against weak opposition in the preliminary round, while D.C. United limped to a single point from six group games—the lowest of all 16 teams.
Houston Dynamo soldiered on as the sole MLS flag-bearers until being dismantled by Atlante in the second leg of their quarter-final. After conceding a late equaliser in the 1-1 draw at Robertson Stadium, the Dynamo travelled to Cancún looking for their first ever win on Mexican soil.
Woeful defending quickly shattered that possibility as Atlante strolled to a 3-0 win.
MLS and USL teams are severely hampered at this stage of the tournament as their respective seasons have yet to commence.
Puerto Rico’s league season starts on April 18, at which point the Mexican Clausura championship will be in Round 14 of 17.
Should the Islanders manage to reach the two-legged Champions League final, the first leg will be played four days after their league opener with Vancouver.
Four of the previous seven CONCACAF finals have been all-Mexican affairs. Despite the heroics of Clarke’s team, another such occasion seems highly likely.