It's finally here: the first round of group stage matches in the 2011-12 CONCACAF Champions League.
While it may not get the same level of attention and viewership as the more prestigious UEFA tournament, fans all around North and Central America will be paying close attention and anxiously awaiting to see how their favored clubs make out.
Featured in the tournament this year are five total MLS squads and four Mexican sides, meaning that more than half of the contenders this time around will be from the two strongest leagues in the region.
Monterrey is back for a repeat title, LA Galaxy are finally enjoying a spot in the group stage after failing to qualify last year, and the Seattle Sounders are hoping to improve on their last-place finish in their group.
It should be one of the most competitive, and entertaining, CONCACAF tournaments in recent years. So who will advance out of the group stage and remain alive in the hunt for regional glory?
We're in for a whole mess of surprise breakout performances and unpredictable upsets this time around.
Here are six bold predictions for how the group stage will turn out.
The Galaxy are easily the most impressive side the MLS has to offer in this year's CONCACAF tournament, and that can be easily seen in the fact that they qualified automatically for the group stage this season as Major League Soccer's leading club in the standings last season and are currently holding a strong lead for the same honor in the current campaign.
The problem? Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena doesn't exactly have a respectable record as of late in knockout tournaments. Or in non-MLS play in general.
In 2010-11, Los Angeles qualified for the tournament as well, but only into the preliminary round as the MLS Cup runners up. They failed to advance past the opening round, and did not qualify for the group stage as other MLS sides who took it more seriously (Real Salt Lake and Columbus Crew) showed that American clubs can be competitive in CONCACAF after all.
In other tournaments, they've performed poorly over the past couple of seasons as well. In the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the Galaxy have failed to advance past the quarter finals in any year since Bruce Arena took the helm. In the past few season they have qualified for the MLS Cup bracket, but have failed to pull off a victory since 2005.
It's a tough call to make, but don't expect the Galaxy to make better on that record in the toughest tournament available to them. Bruce Arena will likely rest his strong starting lineup in favor of domestic league play, and again fail to recognize that teams play in the MLS in order to earn a Champions League spot, and not to simply make money and show off David Beckham to larger crowds.
In the group stage this year, Honduras has two clubs representing their country: Real Espana and Motagua.
Real Espana seem almost guaranteed to advance, given their fortunate placement in the relatively weak Group B against the Colorado Rapids of MLS and Metapan of El Salvador. While Colorado will be entering the tournament in the midst of a domestic surge that's seen them climb the standings in recent weeks, their lack of extensive CONCACAF experience will likely play a role in where they end up at the end of the round.
Real Espana are poised to take full advantage of the potential hardships Colorado may face.
Motagua, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult to read. They are a weaker side than Real Espana, and are in a seemingly stronger group as well. But, being placed in Group A with the LA Galaxy may benefit them more than they know.
If the Galaxy fail to impress as I predicted before, the second advancing team (behind Mexico's Morelia) will be a toss up between Alajuelense of Costa Rica and Motagua. With a bit of luck, Honduras could have a lot to cheer for when the knockout round begins in 2012.
Out of the four Mexican representatives in this year's CONCACAF Champions League tournament, at least three of them seem poised for nearly guaranteed advancement into the knockout stages.
Santos Laguna, in Group B, should be more than capable of taking advantage of their fortunate placement in a weaker group and moving on. Pumas UNAM are easy favorites in Group C, as Mexico's Clausura champions and current Apertura leaders. And last year's tournament Champions, Monterrey, should have little difficulty taking the top spot in Group D.
The only question mark is in Group A, where Morelia stands as the weakest side Mexico has to offer.
Currently, in domestic play, Morelia is sitting second to last in the Apertura table with one win and three losses. However, a strong showing in the preliminary round just a couple of weeks ago -- winning 8-0 on aggregate -- seems to indicate that Morelia can easily make it out of the group stage with the rest of their domestic rivals.
Out of eight clubs that will advance to the quarterfinals of this tournament, don't be surprised if half of them are from Mexico's Primera Division.
It was a tough tournament for the Seattle Sounders last year, being stuck in the "group of death" with Monterrey, Saprissa, and Marathon. While widely regarded as the best last-place finishing club in Champions League, they still finished...well...last.
And they only won a single group stage match in the process.
This year they had some difficulty getting through the preliminaries, losing the first match against Panama's San Francisco 1-0, but coming back in the home leg to secure their aggregate victory in overtime.
Domestically, the Seattle side is performing better than last season, and they are currently sitting in third in the overall MLS standings.
Whether Seattle manages to advance this time around or not is yet to be seen. But one thing is for certain: they will almost certainly improve on last year's CONCACAF campaign.
It's been a rough couple of years in CONCACAF for El Salvador's Metapan, having fallen to Seattle in the preliminaries last year (who then proceeded to win only a single match in the group stage) and barely getting through it this time around. Unfortunately for them, a strong showing in the group stage is far from expected. A single victory would be an accomplishment.
Metapan had the luxury of being paired with one of the tournaments weaker sides in the preliminary round, which was a major contributing factor to their advancement even this far.
Even in the weaker Group B, Metapan has their work cut out for them. They are in for a series of exhausting international matches that are likely to wear on their stamina and confidence. In coinciding with their domestic season, their group stage qualification could potentially result in a worse-case-scenario of negatively effecting their domestic performances as well, perhaps leaving them out of CONCACAF altogether in 2012-13.
Can FC Dallas overcome Mexico's strongest participants and take the first place spot in Group C? Perhaps not, but they're likely to put up an impressive fight and emerge as the tournament's surprise side of 2011-12.
While Dallas may not have the most extensive CONCACAF history imaginable, they are currently having one of their most impressive domestic seasons to date, sitting in second place in the overall MLS standings and strongly challenging LA Galaxy for the Supporters Shield title.
And, unlike the Galaxy as of late, they know how to take tournaments seriously.
With the impressive goal-scoring record of breakout American star Brek Shea, and one of the best goalkeepers in the tournament this year, Dallas are likely to surprise a lot of people and give Mexico's Pumas UNAM a run for their money. Even if they finish second in the group, they'll probably do it with a points total that leaves UNAM a little nervous by the time round is over.