It might not be "the" Champions League, but it's "our Champions League." With MLS teams joining in today, Jon Arnold helps you understand the CCL and tells you what to watch.
August 07, 2013
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There was a relatively common, relatively funny, joke made after Clint Dempsey's shock signing with the Seattle Sounders came to fruition.
"Which Champions League was he talking about?!"
It's safe to assume Dempsey was after the European incarnation when he stated his desire to play in the Champions League. UEFA's version is competitive, lucrative, and well followed, but while the CONCACAF Champions League is several notches below, it can still provide enjoyable international competition.
MLS teams are increasingly setting their sights on winning the trophy and getting the exposure and World Club Cup slot that go with it. That hasn't happened yet, thanks in no small part to Monterrey's dominance in the tournament. Los Rayados have won the past three competitions and will have to rely on fellow Mexican giants Club America and Cruz Azul along with new faces Tijuana and Toluca. The LA Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes, Houston Dynamo, and Sporting Kansas City as well as Canada's Montreal Impact are the MLS clubs trying to wrest the crown away. Plus, storied teams from Central America like Alajuelense, Herediano, Olimpia, Comunicaciones, and Metapan will try to play third wheel on the Liga MX-MLS date and slip into the knockout stages.
A surprise package is entirely possible with only the winner emerging from each three-team group.
Let's take a look at them now:
The Houston Dynamo, in the midst of a decent season after reaching the MLS Cup Final the past two years, should be able to win their group without too much difficulty. Árabe Unido has been dreadful since winning the Apertura, starting this LPF campaign with a draw and two losses. The club limped to the line in the Clausura, stringing together a few draws, but hasn't won since March 27. That's 10 matches without a victory. Trinidad and Tobago's W Connection had no such drop off in form after qualifying via the Caribbean Club Championship. What they do have is a team composed of many new, foreign players. How quickly they're able to gel with the local core, including Daneil Cyrus who had an excellent Gold Cup, will be key to seeing if they can spring an upset.
ASN's winner: Houston Dynamo
This is the group we've cited in the past as one to watch. U.S. Open Cup Champions Sporting Kansas City pursue all their endeavors with enthusiasm, which they'll need to get out of the group in their first CCL. Wednesday's match against Real Esteli, the Nicaraguan champions, won't provide the stiffest test. That will come from Hondurans Olimpia, winners of the four most recent tournaments and 27 total Honduran titles. The team features many of the players familiar to Americans after seeing Honduras this summer in both qualifying and the Gold Cup semifinal, including forward Roger Rojas and defender Brayan Beckeles (who will be relieved not to see Landon Donovan in this group).
ASN's winner: Sporting Kansas City
Poor Valencia. The Haitian club made an inspirational charge to participate in this tournament and will be welcomed by Mexico's Cruz Azul and Costa Rican champions Herediano. El Team
, as Here is sometimes called, actually faltered a bit at the start of the most recent domestic tournament before going on to win the championship. Maybe I'm viewing Cruz Azul's lackluster start a little too harshly, but the Costa Ricans are a veteran team and I like them to repeat their group stage win.
ASN's winner: Herediano
We'll have to see how much attention Club América, current champions of Mexico, devote to the CCL. You'd expect them to have the talent to get out a group featuring winter Costa Rican champions Alajuelense and Panamanian debutants San Miguelito. Alajuelense brings a side with internationals Patrick Pemberton in goal, Johnny Acosta and Jose Salvatierra in defense, and Honduran Jerry Palacios up top. San Miguelito has a younger side, exemplified by Ricardo Clarke, a 20-year-old who found the net with ease in the league last season. Even with all that, it's tough to see Las Águilas faltering in the early stage.
ASN's winner: Club América
This is a tough one to handicap with two MLS teams in the group since the Montreal Impact qualified through the Canadian Championship. Guatemalans Heredia doesn't have much of a shot at knocking off either of the bigger clubs. Both the Impact and San Jose Earthquakes have to devote some focus to making the MLS playoffs this season, but the timing is probably worse for Montreal, which has hit a snag after dashing out to the conference lead in the early days of the season. The Quakes, meanwhile, are on the up and get the nod for that reason.
ASN's winner: San Jose Earthquakes
Toluca stumbled in both the Clausura and Copa Libertadores after finishing runner-up in the Liga MX Apertura last year. They're showing signs of recovering, but will it be enough to get past Guatemalan giants Comunicaciones and a Caledonia of Trinidad and Tobago roster laden with Gold Cup veterans? There is one large thing in their corner, and that's the Nemesio Diaz, a stadium at altitude, which can provide a good home field advantage. The Red Devils leveraged that advantage with a 3-1 win against Caledonia. Comunicacaiones missed this tournament last season and had a tough draw in the tournament before, seeing Monterrey and Seattle Sounders go through in the old format. It's a threat to advance, but with the Liga MX club already a month into its season and in good form, it'll be an uphill battle.
ASN's winner: Toluca
A new manager might help Tijuana avoid international fatigue after Xolos' deep run in Copa Libertadores. They start the trek in El Salvador where a Firpo team on the rise will hope to provide a rude welcome. If Tijuana can keep players healthy (they're not off to a great start with Dario Benedetto missing the Firpo match), they should be able to dispatch both Firpo and Honduran second-fiddle Victoria. There are concerns after Xolos couldn't find a goal in a 0-0 draw in El Salvador to open the group, but Tijuanamerica should still get it done.
ASN's winner: Tijuana
In previous years, the Galaxy has been able to play a reserve side and make it through to the knockout rounds of the CCL. That might not change this year, with a draw that can't be overlooked but also doesn't have the punch of other groups. Tournament mainstays Metapan won the Apertura in El Salvador last season but managed only a mid-table performance in the second half. Costa Ricans Cartaginés had one hand on the trophy this summer but weren’t able to finish the job and lift it. The club is in the tournament because of the spot Belize continues to vacate.
ASN's winner: LA Galaxy
Jon Arnold is an ASN contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.