CCL: Group Stage, Round 3 Roundup
The third round of CCL brought man-of-the-match performances from Luis Suarez’s older brother, Carlos de los Cobos’s least-favorite goalkeeper, and a stretcher. OTF’s Austin Fido recaps…
CONCACAF Champions League isn’t close to approaching MLS-levels of competitive parity, but the third round of this year’s group stage was one of those weeks in which conventional wisdom was confounded. Cruz Azul, Houston Dynamo, and Tijuana needed some good fortune to put away supposedly lesser opposition. América and San Jose Earthquakes got no such luck, and lost.
And suddenly the team with the best chance of claiming the top seed for the knockout rounds is Sporting Kansas City — unbeaten in two road games, yet to concede a goal, and looking a safe bet for two more goal-heavy wins in their upcoming home matches.
Although there may no longer be any safe bets in this year’s CCL, as illustrated by a series of games that defied prediction.
GROUP 1: Houston Dynamo 2 – 1 Árabe Unido
Another narrow escape for the Dynamo, who were a goal behind after eight minutes, courtesy of a soft (but not unjustified) penalty. Houston should have been two goals down shortly thereafter, when Humberto Ward broke the offside trap. But Tally Hall is sixth on the USMNT goalkeeping depth chart for a reason: he’s quite good. Hall stopped Ward, and repeated the feat in the 82nd minute, when Orlando Rodriguez found himself one-on-one with the Dynamo ‘keeper.
Without Hall’s heroics, Dominic Kinnear would be reflecting on two (or three) points lost in this match. Despite more than 60% of possession, 31 crosses, and 6 corners, the Dynamo really only created two solid chances — both of which went in. The Panamanians could have won if they had put as much effort into their finishing as they did into elaborate time wasting routines. The stretcher was on the pitch so frequently, the Dynamo’s official Twitter feed gave it a prize:
Next Match: 9/19 – W Connection vs. Árabe Unido
Árabe Unido need the win to retain control of their destiny in the group: a point or three sets up the final match in Group 1 as a winner-takes-all throw down between the Panamanians and the Dynamo in Panama. The away goal scored in Houston is a potentially important tie-breaker, but only if La Furia Colonense can get a result in Trinidad.
Expect the Savonetta Boys to fight for their CCL survival on home turf. A win for the Trinidadians would set up a very interesting finish to a group in which all three teams appear relatively closely matched. But the most likely result is a draw.
GROUP 2: Olimpia 0 – 2 Sporting Kansas City
Olimpia’s strength has been sapped by summer transfers. First, they lost acrobatic left back, Juan Carlos Garcia, to Wigan Athletic; next, Alexander Lopez moved to Houston Dynamo; and finally, striker Roger Rojas was supposed to go to West Ham United. He failed a medical at the last minute, which appears to have torpedoed his move to England’s Premier League. Unfortunately for Olimpia, the pre-transfer technicalities prevented Rojas from playing in this match, and this perhaps explains why Los Leones lacked bite against Sporting Kansas City.
Or it might be more the case that KC is a very good football team at the moment. Peter Vermes’ side made their opponents look ordinary on a rainy night in Tegucigalpa. For 45 minutes, Olimpia couldn’t get the ball, and the home team was fortunate to exit the first half trailing by only one goal. Los Leones were livelier in the second half, but their spark was extinguished by Dominic Dwyer’s one-man breakaway, which started in his own half, and ended with a penalty conceded by a befuddled Olimpia defense. Soony Saad got both goals on the night, and he can look forward to more as KC seek to turn home advantage for their remaining two games into a 100% record in their group.
Next Match: 9/17 – Sporting Kansas City vs. Real Estelí
Having won both of their road games, KC’s passage to the quarterfinals looks assured. The next target is maximum points from the group stage, thereby challenging for the top seed in the knockout rounds. That will most likely depend on goal difference, so the objective for this match is not just to win, but to win big.
GROUP 3: Valencia 1 – 2 Cruz Azul
It would be harsh to criticize Cruz Azul for sending a reserve team to Haiti. After all, Herediano thrashed Valencia 6-1, and La Maquina Cementera hammered the Costa Ricans at Estadio Azul. If anything, sending the B-team was an act of mercy on the part of the Liga MX club.
Not quite. The Haitians revealed themselves to be an indefatigably attacking side against Herediano, a detail Cruz Azul appeared to have missed in their preparations. La Maquina took an early lead, against the run of play, courtesy of a disastrous misjudgment by Haitian international ‘keeper, Fredy Montrevil. The Liga MX side spent large spells of the remainder of the game cautiously probing for similar gifts, while Valencia never stopped pressing and breaking forward in numbers.
It was Valencia who created more and better chances over 90 minutes. The Haitians’ reward for ceaseless positivity came in the 71st minute, when Andre Amy knocked in the rebound after his header clanged off the post and rebounded to his feet. Inefficient finishing cost Valencia a deserved win, and another goalkeeping error allowed Jesús Lara to nick a late winner for Cruz Azul.
This was a gallant performance from perhaps the least fancied team in this tournament, but Cruz Azul got away with the points needed to retain hope of a perfect record in the group stage.
Next Match: 9/18 – Herediano vs. Valencia
Despite their impressive efforts against Cruz Azul, there is little reason to anticipate anything other than another loss for Valencia in this match. Herediano’s only hope of winning the group is not just to beat Cruz Azul, but also to amass a huge goal difference advantage. The Costa Ricans didn’t send reserves to their first meeting with Valencia, and it seems unlikely they will let the Haitians line up against a second team in this fixture.
Still, Valencia looked better against Cruz Azul than they did in their opening match of CCL. If they continue to raise their game and maintain their attacking style of play, this will be an entertaining match.
GROUP 4: Alajuelense 1 – 0 América
América were dominant in every aspect of this game except the one required for points: goals. Alajuelense struggled at times to get near the ball, such was the quality of Las Águilas’ passing, but Los Rojinegros kept their opponents at bay in the final third.
América’s head coach, Miguel Herrera, arguably sent a weaker team to Costa Rica than he fielded in Panama, but his decision appeared validated by another display of crisp, fluid passing. Until Carlos Gutiérrez got caught with arms around Armando Alonso in the box, and Álvaro Sánchez converted the ensuing penalty for Alajuelense.
Anchored by Philadelphia Union cast-off Porfirio Lopez, Los Rojinegros held on for three points. The result is not disastrous for América, but stands as a reminder that the gap in quality between Liga MX clubs and the rest of the region is not insurmountable.
Next Match: 9/17 – América vs. Sporting San Miguelito
Las Águilas will get the chance to wash away the bitter taste of CCL defeat when Sporting San Miguelito visit Azteca for the next round. Having beaten La Academia in Panama, América will be expected to claim three points and the upper hand in Group 4 from this match. However, this is not a game they need to win — Las Águilas already hold the tie-breaker over Sporting San Miguelito, so a draw will do just fine. (It is Alajuelense who must be defeated.)
As such, it will be interesting to see how Herrera treats this game. He doesn’t need to use his best players for this match, but it’s a risky gambit that has failed once already. And he can be assured Sporting San Miguelito will be chasing a win.
GROUP 5: Heredia 1 – 0 San Jose Earthquakes
In the build-up to this match, mlssoccer.com published an article in which San Jose head coach Mark Watson defined his approach to CCL as “pragmatic”. That may be an accurate description of the decision to send a largely reserve team to Montreal for their opening game of the tournament. But when the ‘Quakes did the same thing for this match, they crossed into repeating-an-action-and-expecting-a-different-outcome territory, which conventional wisdom defines as insanity.
Much like San Jose’s first game of CCL, a weakened team couldn’t get the job done on the road and lost 1-0. This result puts Heredia in pole position for the quarterfinals. If Los Jaguares can get a point from their next match (in Montreal on September 24th), they will win the group.
Next Match: 9/17 – San Jose Earthquakes vs. Montreal Impact
Two consecutive losses in CCL groups is often sufficient to eliminate a team from contention, but there is a case for the ‘Quakes as favorites to get to the quarterfinals from Group 5. San Jose’s home record remains very good (just one loss in MLS so far this season), and all they require is two wins at Buck Shaw Stadium by two goals or more, plus a helping hand from Montreal.
However, to beat L’impact, the ‘Quakes must abandon pragmatism in favor of ambition.
GROUP 6: Caledonia AIA 0 – 3 Comunicaciones
Paolo Suarez single-handedly dismantled Caledonia AIA with a hat trick that combined skill, power, and questionable sportsmanship. His first goal was redolent of the work of his younger brother, Luis: the Uruguayan cut into the box from the left wing, dribbled past defenders and creating the angle for smooth shot to the far side of the goal.
His second was just a hit-and-hope effort from outside the area that surprised the ‘keeper. And his third came, somewhat fortuitously, in injury time: Glenroy Samuel twisted something in the act of taking a goal kick, fell to the ground in agony, and Suarez shot into an unguarded net.
It would perhaps have been more sporting to kick the ball out of play, but Comunicaciones’ slim hope of making the quarterfinals rest on scoring lots of goals. They will need to beat Toluca in Mexico to progress, but Los Cremas cannot afford to drop points prior to their Group 6 finale. For once, the ruthless competitive spirit of a footballer named Suarez is beyond reproach.
Next Match: 9/18 – Caledonia AIA vs. Toluca
It’s win or go home for Caledonia AIA, whereas Los Diablos Rojos will want three points to challenge for the top seed in the knockout rounds. Based on performances to date, Toluca are prohibitive favorites to win this match. For the Trinidadians losing by just one goal would be sufficient to beat pre-match expectations.
Group 7: Tijuana 1 – 0 Luis Ángel Firpo
The margin of victory was narrow, but Tijuana dominated this match from first to last. Denied a win in El Salvador by Firpo’s ‘keeper Dagoberto Portillo, Los Xolos once again found themselves frustrated by an inspired performance from a Salvadoran portero.
This time around, Firpo’s hero was Dennis Salinas, a man with whom Chicago Fire fans have a surprising amount in common — he too was once embarrassed by Carlos de los Cobos. Salinas was (almost literally) once his country’s starting goalkeeper, but de los Cobos yanked him off the pitch in the 34th minute of his second — and last — international appearance after Ecuador scored two early goals in a friendly back in 2007.
But I digress. Tijuana were deserved victors in this game, though they needed to fetch Fidel Martínez off the bench to score the winner. His 81st minute header squeezed past Salinas, and effectively put Los Xolos into the quarterfinals. Only Victoria can catch them now, but the the Hondurans would need to win all three of their remaining matches, of which two are on the road. Las Jaibas Bravas have lost three of their first four domestic league matches, so an all-conquering run through CCL seems unlikely.
Next Match: 9/19 – Luis Ángel Firpo vs. Victoria
The Salvadorans are out of the tournament: the best they can hope for is seven points, which would match Tijuana’s total, but Los Xolos hold all the important tiebreakers. If Victoria lose, they too will be eliminated. So if you want Group 7 to remain competitive beyond the fourth round of matches, root for the Hondurans to win.
However, such is the history between El Salvador and Honduras, it’s unlikely either club will be much troubled by the fine print of CCL’s group stage qualifying rules. They will each want to win, which should make this an entertaining game in its own right — and probably a draw.
Group 8: Cartaginés 0 – 0 Isidro Metapán
By missing a penalty in the second half, Randall Brenes denied Los Brumosos the chance to win a game they should have lost. Isidro Metapán had the bulk of the chances, most falling to Nico Muñoz, the joint top scorer in last year’s CCL. But Cartaginés had the best chance, and the missed penalty cost the Costa Rican side all the benefit gained from their thrilling 4-2 win in El Salvador in the first round of group matches.
Los Brumosos must now rely on Los Caleros to take points off the Galaxy in LA to resurrect any hope of a non-MLS club progressing from this group.
Next Match: 9/18 – Los Angeles Galaxy vs. Isidro Metapán
The Galaxy can eliminate Isidro Metapán from the competition with a win. And although Los Caleros’ performance in Costa Rica proved they are no pushovers, it also suggested they lack the finishing to trouble one of MLS’s better clubs at close to its best form.
The third round of group stage matches will be played from September 17th to 19th.
OTF’s Austin Fido generally roots for the underdog @canetop.