CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals: Previewing The Final Eight
A month from today, the first match of the knockout stage for the 2010–11 CONCACAF Champions League will kick off.
Remember? The Champions League? The matches played over the fall?
Yes, it has been awhile, but after a four-month intermission from the tournament, the knockout stage will kick off, and a two-month race for the North American crown will commence.
A lot of speculation has been made about the way CONCACAF paired clubs in the knockout stage. Most of it has been with the fact that every Mexican club has been paired in the quarterfinals in such a way so that one Mexican club is guaranteed to make the finals. Although the chance of two of those teams playing for the final is impossible. To a lesser extent, the same criticism has been drawn to the fact that two MLS teams, Real Salt Lake and Columbus Crew, were paired in the quarterfinals.
When you look into it, it's actually the result of a rather surreal coincidence. The reason this happened was because of the groups the Mexican and American clubs won and the groups they were runners-up in.
Funny how it worked out, but it has made for some thrilling quarterfinal fixtures going into February.
Now on to the predictions of each match-up.
Toluca vs. Monterrey
Group C winners Monterrey (Mexico) vs. Group D runners-up Toluca (Mexico)
This is arguably a match-up of the strongest Mexican club and the weakest Mexican club in the entire tournament this year. Given Mexican clubs' supremacy in recent tournament history, that is not saying a whole lot. Had one of these clubs been set up with a different route, they could have had a very realistic probability of making the finals.
But it is what it is, so only one of the two can make it to the semis to face the Cruz Azul/Santos Laguna winner.
We'll start things out with Toluca, who in my opinion were a thread away from becoming tournament laughingstocks. Placed in what was likely the weakest Champions League group, they were extremely close to becoming the first Mexican club to fail to make the knockout stage of the tournament in recent history. Not exactly a label you want to have.
In their fixture at Puerto Rico this past September, Toluca was shoved into that position when they relinquished a two goal lead, to fall to the Islanders 3-2. The result? They would go into their final match against El Salvador's FAS in a must-win situation...or else they could have watched the Islanders participate in the quarterfinals.
After a slow start, Toluca was able to thrash FAS 5-0, and now they are faced against Monterrey, who had a polar situation and a polar performance for that matter.
Faced with what was likely the toughest group of the tournament, the Rayados had, well, less difficulty, climbing to the top of the group table and staying there.
Sure none of their wins were as intense as say Toluca's home fixtures, but whether they were at home or on the road, they were able to handle themselves.
It was a looming question as to whether they could play from behind in this tournament, but a rallying 3-2 victory at home vs. Seattle Sounders FC could have answered that question.
With that type of play, Monterrey should be able to advance over Toluca, but it will be interesting to see how Monterrey does at Toluca.
Final Prediction: Monterrey advances
Cruz Azul vs. Santos Laguna
Group B winners Santos Laguna (Mexico) vs. Group A runners-up Cruz Azul (Mexico)
Before the Champions League began, MLSSoccer.com analyst, Simon Borg label Cruz Azul as the "Buffalo Bills" of CONCACAF.
Cementaros fans, don't fret. He didn't mean that referring to the Bills' recent performances but rather their Super Bowl performances. Which is exactly how Cruz Azul has felt in the Champions League lately.
Ever since the CONCACAF upgraded their continental tournament to the Champions League, Cruz Azul has made it to the final of every single tournament, only to lose against Atlante in 2008–09 and Pachuca in 2009–10.
Coincidently, Cruz Azul is in a relatively similar position as they were in 2009–09. They were runners up in their groups (despite of being group favorites), and they faced Mexican opposition in the quarterfinals. Deja vu? They'll be hoping it's not in the same way in terms of losing the finals.
Santos Laguna is coming into the quarterfinals after playing in a group that, apart from Columbus Crew, failed to deliver much of a challenge to them.
Given their circumstances and recent outings in the Mexican Apertura, the winner of this series is going to come down to whoever can win by a larger margin at home.
Final Prediction: Cruz Azul advances
Real Salt Lake vs. Columbus Crew
Group A winners Real Salt Lake (USA) vs. Group B runners-up Columbus Crew (USA)
In the history of the modern day Champions League, no other American club has taken the tournament as seriously as Real Salt Lake. When their campaign began, the club said it would be their primary emphasis: to not only show that they were one of the best teams in the United States, but in North America.
They've done a sensational job in proving they are one of North America's best.
The reasons are countless: the first MLS club to win a Champions League group, their near victory over Cruz Azul in Mexico City, a win in Panama and a draw in Toronto. Rio Tinto was a nightmare for their opponents in Group A, as each one of them lost to RSL in Rio Tinto.
Consequently, Salt Lake shadows Columbus in this tournament, mainly because the Crew met expectations. In spite of being in a group with the mighty Santos Laguna, Columbus was never faced with as tough of competition as Salt Lake was. It's not that Municipal and Joe Public were cakewalk victories for the Crew, but Joe Public is no Toronto.
While their 4-2 record may have been their personal best in Champions League play, it was expected of them. What may have been a surprise was how tough it was for Santos Laguna to compete with them both at home and on the road. Especially since Columbus had two goals called back in their 1-0 defeat to Santos Laguna in Mexico.
Still, the new Columbus team is now missing several key pieces to the team that was responsible for two Supporters' Shields, an MLS Cup and a run to the U.S. Open Cup final. They're about to begin a rebuilding season, while Salt Lake is building upon their phenomenal season. A season that is without doubt the best Salt Lake season, by far. Even if it didn't involve an MLS Cup title.
Final Prediction: Real Salt Lake advances
Olimpia vs. Saprissa
Group D winners Olimpia (Honduras) vs. Group C runners-up Saprissa (Costa Rica)
The two remaining Central American clubs find themselves in the knockout stage after extremely disappointing Champions League campaigns last season.
In the 2009–10 edition, the Honduran runners-up, Olimpia were knocked off by the 2008 Panamanian Clasura champions, Arabe Unido in the preliminary stage.
Suffering home losses to Columbus Crew and Cruz Azul, Saprissa ended up with a third-place finish in their group, ultimately being eliminated from the tournament.
While it was fairly expected that both the 2010 Honduran Clausura champions and the 2010 Costa Rican Vernano champions would be back in Champions League play the following year, their paths were different but in the end successful, proving they deserved direct byes into Group Stage
Take Saprissa, who most likely was placed in the toughest group in the entire tournament with Mexico's Monterrey, who is arguably the best club on the continent right now. Not to mention last year's quarter-finalists, Marathon, and the U.S. Open Cup champions Seattle Sounders, who have created one of the most hostile home atmospheres in the United States.
Thanks to the Puerto Rico Islanders knocking off Los Angeles Galaxy, who were poised as Champions League favorites, Olimpia's group looked to be the easiest of all groups. A sharp contrast to Saprissa's group.
In spite of this, things looked rough at first for the Leones. Their first two matches started off with a 1-1 tie to tournament minnows, Puerto Rico. Subsequently, Olimpia suffered an embarrassing 4-0 thrashing defeat to Toluca.
Facing El Salvador's FAS, Roger Rojas' two goals in the Leones' 2-0 victory could have been what caused the club's fortunes to turn around, as Olimpia would go on a four-match winning streak to finish atop the group and salvage their poor Champions League showing the year before.
Their epic turnarounds should count for a thrilling competition, and with the winner playing an MLS club in the semifinals (they probably hope it's Columbus), odds are they'll have great hopes to reach the finals.
Still, I think Saprissa's performance, especially following an intense rally in Seattle to defeat the Sounders has highlighted their effort and ability to defeat tougher opposition, regardless of environment.
Final Prediction: Saprissa advances