CONCACAF Champions League: Quarterfinal Preview

Guess who's back? (Photo: mlssoccer.com)

Guess who’s back? (Photo: mlssoccer.com)

OTF’s CONCACAF editor Austin Fido brings you most of what you need to know about the upcoming CCL quarterfinals…

Eight teams and six weeks left in our regional showpiece tournament. Here’s a look at the quarterfinal match-ups, including a reminder of how each club got to this stage, and an update on what they’ve been doing while CCL has been on hiatus.

(5)  ALAJUELENSE vs. (4) ARABE UNIDO

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

1st Leg – 3/10 @ Alajuelense (9pm CST); 2nd Leg – 3/20 @ Arabe Unido (9pm CST)

The only two teams remaining in the competition from outside the USA and Mexico, Alajuelense and Arabe Unido are carrying the flags of Costa Rica and Panama respectively. 

The guarantee of a Central American side in the semi-finals of CCL adds variety to a competition that too often boils down to a face-off between MLS and Liga MX  for north-of-the-border pundits, and has been the unofficial third trophy of Mexican domestic soccer for the best part of a decade.

Alajuelense

Who has more fun with graphic design than LDA? (Image: alajuelense.wordpress.com)

Who has more fun with graphic design than LDA? (Image: alajuelense.wordpress.com)

How They Got Here:

Los Manudos beat Mexican powerhouse America home and away in the group stage. The same America that topped the 2013 Liga MX Apertura table and lost the Liguilla final to Leon. Las Aguilas were the best team in Mexico when they played Alajuelense, and were beaten fair and square. Twice.

Sure, it was a slightly under-powered starting lineup for America in Costa Rica, but it still included five players with international caps to their name, and Rubens Sambueza, who would be a Mexican national team regular were it not for FIFA’s refusal to forgive him for being born in Argentina.

And for the return leg, in Azteca, when Las Aguilas had to win, Miguel Herrera rolled out his big guns: Moises Munoz, Aquivaldo Mosquera, Osvaldo Martinez, and Raul Jimenez. Ninety minutes later, Alajuelense had six yellow cards, one goal, and as well deserved a place in the CCL quarterfinals as any team in this competition.

What They’ve Been Doing Recently:

Alajuelense won the Costa Rican Primera Division 2013 Invierno title, securing qualification for next season’s CCL. The club is once again among the league leaders in the ongoing Campeonato de Verano, and is unbeaten in its last six league matches.

One To Watch: Jerry Palacios

Palacios is on fire. He’s scored five goals in his last three games, including the winner for his country, Honduras, over Venezuela on March 5th. Los Catrachos are going to Brazil, and in this form, so is Jerry Palacios. 

Obligatory reference to the fact Jerry (the man in the middle), Johnny and Wilson Palacios were picked for Honduras's 2010 World Cup squad. (Photo: tattoos.fanshare.com)

Obligatory reference to the fact Jerry (the man in the middle), Johnny and Wilson Palacios were picked for Honduras’s 2010 World Cup squad. Yes, they are brothers. (Photo: tattoos.fanshare.com)

Arabe Unido

No, the trophy is not for diving. (Photo: laestrella.com.pa)

No, the trophy is not for diving. (Photo: laestrella.com.pa)

How They Got Here:

Bested Houston Dynamo and Trinidad’s W Connection in the group stage. The Panamanians appeared to enjoy living up to one of American soccer’s more cherished stereotypes: the notion that teams from all other CONCACAF nations are a bunch of no-good, injury-faking, conniving cynics, determined to squeeze the joy out of football with their referee-baiting antics.

Still, for those inclined to attribute Arabe Unido’s place in these quarterfinals to the willingness of a few players to hit the deck at the faintest provocation, remember this club scored more goals (seven) than any MLS club managed in the group stage (LA got closest with six).

What They’ve Been Doing Recently:

Losing players. The team that beat Houston 1-0 to advance to this quarterfinal included Harold Cummings (now playing in Peru), Jose Gonzalez (now in Colombia), Orlando Rodriguez (moved to another club, San Francisco, in Panama), and Alejandro Velez (transferred to Panama City’s Rio Abajo).

In their place, the club has promoted from its youth team and is challenging for the top spot in the Panamanian top flight. However, recent form – two consecutive losses – suggests the kids from Colon may be flagging.

One To Watch: Miguel Lloyd

The Dominican international goalkeeper is the only player in Arabe Unido’s current squad over the age of 30. His experience will be vital. His goalkeeping will also be pretty important, given the perception that his team is the weakest remaining in the competition. 

He's not the best known guy in this round of CCL, but he could be the busiest. (Photo: balompiedominicano.com)

He’s not the best known guy in this round of CCL, but he could be the busiest. (Photo: balompiedominicano.com)

(8) SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES vs. (1) TOLUCA

image: mlssoccer.com

image: mlssoccer.com

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

1st Leg – 3/11 @ San Jose (9pm CST); 2nd Leg – 3/19 @ Toluca (7pm CST)

Seedings-wise, this is worst (San Jose) vs. first (Toluca), but it looks a compelling match. Whatever the apparent disparities may be between the squads – Toluca is in title-chasing form; San Jose spent most of 2013 being chastened – this is a showdown between two of the more inhospitable home grounds in the region. 

The ‘Quakes clog their tiny field with big bodies and make opponents work for points. Toluca plays at high altitude – in the ballpark of 9,000 feet above sea level. Whichever team is least uncomfortable away from home will make the semifinals.

San Jose Earthquakes

Jon Busch found the strength to look way. Can you? (Photo: commons..wikimedia.org)

Jon Busch found the strength to look way. Can you? (Photo: commons..wikimedia.org)

How They Got Here:

Halfway through the group stage, the Quakes were dead last in Group 5, having lost to both Montreal and Heredia. They turned that around by winning both their remaining home games, scoring enough goals in the process to win the head-to-head goal difference calculations that ultimately determined the winner of a group in which all three teams finished level on points.

It’s the template they will look to apply to this quarterfinal: win by plenty at home, lose narrowly away.

What They’ve Done Recently:

The Quakes rescheduled their MLS season-opening match from 3/9 to 3/15 back in December, before the CCL quarterfinal dates were made public.

It looks to be a smart move: San Jose got into the quarterfinals because they are damn hard to play at home, so it makes sense to clear the decks and have a fresh team go all out to get a win in the first leg against Toluca.

The front office has been busy in the off-season, offloading 15 players and signing (to date) 11. It will be a remodeled first team in 2014, under an almost-new coach, Mark Watson –  the man who took over from Frank Yallop part-way through last season.

Despite the upheavals, this still looks a lot like the team Yallop built: Jon Busch in goal, Victor Bernardez holding down the middle of defense, Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart crashing the box, and Chris Wondolowski feasting off the flick-ons and knock-downs.

One To Watch: Chris Wondolowski

It is a World Cup year. USMNT has scored two goals in its last four games, and Wondo got both of them. He’s a long shot to make the national team roster for Brazil, but if he keeps scoring goals – especially against in-form Liga MX sides like Toluca – he might make the final cut.

Being the hot hand (or, perhaps, foot) probably won’t get him a start in Brazil, but it can get him in the squad.

Throw in a CCL Golden Boot, and you're on your way to Brazil. (Photo: almadensoccer.org)

Throw in a CCL Golden Boot, and you’re on your way to Brazil. (Photo: almadensoccer.org)

Toluca

Like I said: Toluca is not welcoming. (Image: layoutsparks.com)

Like I said: Toluca is not welcoming. (Image: layoutsparks.com)

How They Got Here:

Los Diablos Rojos played the best football of the group stage, effortlessly passing their way round opponents in the course of scoring 15 goals – four more than any other team managed during the opening phase of the tournament.

What They’ve Done Recently:

Toluca was the top scoring team in the 2013 Liga MX Apertura, and bounced Cruz Azul out of the playoffs. Currently, they are second in the Clausura table.

Los Diablos haven’t lost a home game since September 8th (to Cruz Azul), and the advantage of the thin air of their home stadium is perhaps their greatest asset in CCL’s two-legged knockout round format.

One To Watch: Pablo Velazquez

There is plenty of buzz around Isaac Brizuela, who is making a late but determined case for inclusion in El Tri‘s World Cup squad. But the man to watch for Toluca is a guy who definitely isn’t going to Brazil: Pablo Velazquez.

The San Jose Earthquakes did not invent the concept of a big man up front, and Toluca have one of the better examples of the genre in the 6′ 4″ Paraguayan. He was the top scorer in the 2013 Apertura, his first Liga MX tournament, and he’s bagged five in ten appearances in the 2014 Clausura to date.

He's not just good in the air, he's fancy. (Photo: diariodemexico.com.mx)

He’s not just good in the air, he’s fancy. (Photo: diariodemexico.com.mx)

(6) LOS ANGELES GALAXY vs. (3) TIJUANA

image: mlssoccer.com

image: mlssoccer.com

image: en.wikipedia.org

image: en.wikipedia.org

1st Leg – 3/12 @ LA (9pm CST); 2nd Leg – 3/18 @ Tijuana (9pm CST)

If you’re looking for a Liga MX vs MLS match-up where the American club might be the favorite, this is the one.

The higher seed gives Tijuana home advantage – well, Xolos will play the second leg at home – but LA’s players are probably very familiar with the drive across the border because…they’re fond of visiting Galaxy academy graduate, USMNT youth team regular, and current Xolo, Paul Arriola. Yeah, that’ll be the reason, for sure.

This is the true California Clasico. A ready-made cross-border rivalry that pits alta vs baja and also happens to be a pairing of two teams that last one something major at the end of 2012.

So why count LA Galaxy as favorites? It’s more about Tijuana being the least impressive of the remaining Liga MX sides in CCL than it is about LA’s relative strength. Still, running Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane against a defense that has shipped 13 goals in nine matches doesn’t hurt.

Los Angeles Galaxy

The team that got LA into CCL 2013-14 (Photo: lagalaxy.com)

The team that got LA into CCL 2013-14 (Photo: lagalaxy.com)

How They Got Here:

Won three out of four in the group stage, dropping only their last game, which didn’t count for much other than seeding. 

What They’ve Done Recently:

For a team that seems never to pass up the chance for a friendly, LA had a curiously low key preseason, perhaps because Real Madrid couldn’t make it over for a kick around. The Galaxy played three official warm-up games and scrimmaged behind closed doors with Minnesota United. Chicago Fire played eight preseason games; Vancouver played seven. 

Still, Bruce Arena has earned the right not to have his methods questioned. We can assume the team is fit and ready for the season. The Galaxy kicked off MLS on 3/8 in their home stadium by hammering Real Salt Lake in a match they somehow contrived to lose, 1-0.  

There’s nothing like a bit of preposterous misfortune to clear out the off-season cobwebs. There will be no further distractions, or excuses, between the Galaxy and both legs of their CCL quarterfinal. 

One To Watch: Gyasi Zardes

Two goals in two friendlies was all it took for mlssoccer.com to declare Zardes was “tearing up” the preseason. He’s good, no question. Any team in MLS would love to have him. But if he has the kind of breakout season his talents deserve, the league’s official website is going to run out of superlatives by the end of April.

Tijuana

Gotta feel this did not end well (photo: bigsoccer,com)

Gotta feel this did not end well (photo: bigsoccer,com)

How They Got Here:

Tijuana took 10 points out of 12 from the group stage, and never looked particularly troubled by either El Salvador’s Luis Angel Firpo or Honduran CCL debutant, Victoria.

What They’ve Done Recently:

Let’s go back further than recently. Xolos won the 2012 Liga MX Apertura – that’s why they are in this tournament, because they were a damn good team two seasons ago. The same team was unlucky to be eliminated from the 2013 Copa Libertadores in the quarterfinals by eventual champions, Atletico Mineiro.

However, in the 2013 Liga MX Clausura, Xolos finished 10th and missed the playoffs. In the 2013 Apertura, they finished 10th and missed the playoffs. In the current tournament, the 2014 Clausura, they are 8th after 10 games.

Their 3/7 home victory over Chivas, was Xolos first win in four Liga MX matches.

Tijuana is an exciting team, bulging with American talent, and thereby popular on this side of the border. But it hasn’t really been a superior team for quite some time.

One To Watch: Cristian Pellerano

The well-traveled, 32-year-old, Argentinian defensive midfielder developed a reputation as the rug that really tied the room together for Xolos during their 2012/13 purple patch. (He was, incidentally, brought in to plug the gap left by Arevalo Rios) He’s still in Tijuana, but the old dog has learned a new trick this year: goal scoring.

He has five in the Clausura to date, which makes him joint second in the current Liga MX scoring chart. And he had the good sense to get sent off in his last match, meaning he’ll miss Tijuana’s 3/7 encounter with Chivas – so he should be well rested for CCL.

An increasingly common sight in Tijuana (Photo: goal.com)

An increasingly common sight in Tijuana (Photo: goal.com)

(7) SPORTING KANSAS CITY vs. (2) CRUZ AZUL

image: mlssoccer.com

image: mlssoccer.com

image: en.wikipedia.com

image: en.wikipedia.com

1st Leg – 3/12 @ Kansas City (7pm CST); 2nd Leg – 3/19 @ Cruz Azul (9pm CST)

Reigning MLS champs vs. the runaway front-runners in this year’s Liga MX Clausura? Yes. Please. This pairing looks very tasty indeed.

It also looks likely to be an almighty mismatch. La Maquina Cementera is bludgeoning Liga MX at the moment; KC just got blitzed by Columbus in the Mickey Mouse Cup.

If Sporting Kansas City beats this Cruz Azul, it will be a feat almost deserving of the inevitable hyperbole that will follow. Almost. 

Sporting Kansas City

Can KC win without Casino Jimmy? (Photo: sportingkc.com)

Can KC win without Casino Jimmy? (Photo: sportingkc.com)

How They Got Here:

Before the inevitable whining about “preseason form” starts in the event that KC gets walloped by Cruz Azul, this would be a good time to remember Sporting coasted through its away fixtures in the group stage. They bested Nicaraguan champs, Real Esteli, and perennial Honduran CCL representatives, Olimpia, on the road, while their opponents sleepily emerged from a summer hiatus.

In the latter part of the group stage, KC couldn’t win at home – a fact which may be partially owed to tiring legs in the Sporting squad, but also had a lot to do with their guests being fitter and stronger than they had been earlier in the season.

What goes around comes around in CCL. Still, KC won MLS Cup last year, and have known these games were coming for six months. 

What They’ve Been Doing Recently:

Was the secret to KC’s recent success largely Jimmy Nielsen’s ‘keeping, the defense in front of him, or both? We’ll find out soon enough. Nielsen retired in the off-season, and Eric Kronberg (or possible Andy Gruenebaum) will have the privilege of backing up the best defense in MLS.

Sporting threw in tricksy winger Sal Zizzo, tossed out superfluous striker Teal Bunbury, but this is basically the same squad that won MLS Cup – sans Jimmy Nielsen. 

KC’s head office is either very confident about their squad strength (that’s the story they’re pushing) or quietly treating the first couple of MLS matches as an extension of preseason. The club hasn’t sought to reschedule either it’s opening MLS fixture (3/8 in Seattle, which KC lost 1-0) or the 3/15 match against FC Dallas, which currently punctuates their games with Cruz Azul.

Performances on the pitch will determine whether this is uncommon good sense or hubris.

One To Watch: Matt Besler

Hometown hero, national  team regular, presumptive World Cup starter, winner of US Open Cup in 2012, Gold and MLS Cups in 2013, and club captain – all before the age of 30. Besler is building quite a resume.

If he can lead his team past Cruz Azul in what might be considered the upset of round, even in Kansas City, he’ll cement his reputation as perhaps the best American player never to play outside MLS (yet).

Besler helps a camera-shy fan overcome her crippling social anxiety. (Photo: mlssoccer.com)

Besler helps a camera-shy fan overcome her crippling social anxiety. (Photo: mlssoccer.com)

Cruz Azul

Not a happy bunny. (Image: ueom.com)

Not a happy bunny. (Image: ueom.com)

How They Got Here:

Won four out of four in their group but were beaten down to the second seed on goal difference.

What They’ve Been Doing Recently:

Ten games in to the 2014 LigaMX Clausura, La Maquina is flying: eight wins, one draw, one loss, 18 goals scored, six conceded. The loss and three of those goals against came in their last match before their CCL quarterfinal first leg – an unexpected 3-0 drubbing on a visit to UANL Tigres.

That result notwithstanding, this is the form team of the tournament.

One To Watch: Marco Fabian

Cruz Azul’s squad is big enough to allow for a near-reserve team to take on KC with some confidence. A guy like Achille Emana, who was outstanding in the group stage, can’t get off the bench in league play at the moment. 

But Liga MX sides tend to take CCL seriously, so we may be fortunate enough to see Marco Fabian bring his four-goals-in-nine-games form to the regional tournament.

CONCACAF editor Austin Fido makes joyful noises about CCL @canetop

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