CCL 2014-15: Group 6 Preview – Alajuelense, Chorrillo FC & Cruz Azul

Your 2013-14 CCL champs, Cruz Azul - back for another run at the trophy. (soccerbyives.net)

Your 2013-14 CCL champs, Cruz Azul – back for another run at the trophy. (soccerbyives.net)

Our CCL 2014-15 preview series has a glance at Group 6 and the reigning CONCACAF champions…

There have been six editions of CONCACAF Champions League, and not once has there been a final without one of either Cruz Azul or Monterrey. Sure, there were plenty of finals of the tournament when it had a different name or a different format, but since 2008-09, there have been no more consistent contenders in the iteration we call CCL than La Máquina and Los Rayados.

Monterrey is still sleeping off the effects of having gorged itself on three straight titles from 2010-11 to 2012-13, so it is left to Cruz Azul to carry the burden of their shared tradition this year.

Last year was a good year for La Máquina, often characterized as Mexico’s perennial runner-up. The 2013-14 edition of CCL was Cruz Azul’s fourth entry to the tournament as currently named, and the fourth time it had secured its berth as a runner-up in the Liga MX Liguilla.

The three prior attempts had seen the club twice lose the CCL final (runner-up again) and once lose to Monterrey (undefeated in CCL finals to date). But 2013-14 was Cruz Azul’s year, at last.

La Máquina steamrolled its way through the group stage, bludgeoned Sporting Kansas City and Club Tijuana in the second legs of its quarterfinal and semifinal at Estadio Azul, each time after losing the first leg 1-0. And then, as if to prove it could not just win the tournament but win it the hard way, Cruz Azul beat Toluca in the final without actually winning: a 1-1 result on the road gave La Máquina the title on away goals.

We get last year's player of the tournament back as well (mexico.cnn.com)

We get last year’s player of the tournament back as well (mexico.cnn.com)

Of course, being Cruz Azul, the club still couldn’t quite manage to win a Liga MX title, despite being the best team in Mexico for the whole of the 2014 Clausura – except the part when the championship is decided.

The defending CCL champion is only in this tournament because León had the courtesy to win both Liga MX titles, so the fourth Mexican spot in this competition fell to the team with the best record in the Clausura regular season.

The reward is a tough group on paper: Alajuelense was a semifinalist last year, and Chorrillo can take some encouragement from the example of fellow Panamanian club Árabe Unido, who made the quarterfinals in 2013-14 (and lost to Los Manudos).

Catch up with the rest of the CCL groups here, or forge ahead into Group 6…

Yeah, it's another tricky group, Tena. (info7.mx)

Yeah, it’s another tricky group, Tena. (info7.mx)

Group 6: Alajuelense, Chorrillo FC, Cruz Azul

AlajuelenseAlajuelense has seen this story before. In last year’s CCL, Los Manudos were sandwiched between the pre-tournament favorites, América, and a potentially awkward Panamanian side, Sporting San Miguelito.

When Alajuelense contrived to lose its opening game of the tournament in Panama, while América grabbed three points from its trip to play La Academia, it seemed Las Águilas would ease into the quarterfinals.

Didn’t work out that way. Alajuelense kept five consecutive clean sheets, beat América home and away, and only stalled in the semifinals when the defense was finally breached and the team couldn’t score any more.

The core of that defense is still in place for this campaign: ‘keeper Patrick Pemberton and defender Jhonny Acosta were part of Costa Rica’s World Cup squad; Porfirio López and José Salvatierra probably weren’t too far away from joining their teammates in Brazil; Elías Palma, Kenner Gutiérrez and Ariel Soto each made contributions to CCL last year.

Alajuelense’s primary shortcoming in CCL last year was a lack of goals. It lost all three games in which it conceded.

The trend is evident again in this year’s Copa Costa Rica, where Los Manudos won three games on the back of three clean sheets, but have lost their last two. They have one more game (8/3 vs. Cartaginés) to get things back in order before heading to Estadio Azul.

The club will hope Jerry Palacios doesn’t go down injured at a crucial point in the campaign (he missed the home leg of the semifinal against Toluca), or that Jonathan McDonald can find the scoring touch which abandoned him during the matches against Los Diablos Rojos. New signing Ramón Núñez may provide some additional punch from midfield, but he won’t be ready to play for a while yet.

For better or for worse, Alajuelense is substantially the same team that shocked América and was tamed by Toluca last year.

Chorrillo_FCChorrillo FC enters CCL for just the second time, perhaps cursing fate for once again matching the club with a tournament favorite. Back in 2012-13, Los Chorrilleros were in Monterrey’s group.

The squad has been strengthened, most notably with attacking talent: Alfredo Stephens is a quick, young player with an eye for goal; Anthony Basile is a veteran of the Panamanian league; Alcibíades Rojas had just started to break into the Panama national team when he was arrested in late 2013 as part of a police crackdown on an alleged kidnapping ring – he’s back and ready for a fresh start with a new club (and an old club: Rojas has regularly played for Chorrillo over the years).

The team has got off to a good start in the Liga Panameña de Fútbol: two wins and a draw, and both victories have been away from home. Good form could be Chorrillo’s greatest asset if its group-mates persist with their relatively lackluster starts to their respective seasons.

Cruz-AzulCruz Azul had a slow start to the Apertura last year, so kicking off the new season in Liga MX with a 1-0 loss at home and a 1-1 draw on the road is certainly no reason to panic. If La Máquina doesn’t beat Veracruz on 8/2, when Los Tiburones Rojos visit Estadio Azul, then there may be reason for anxiety.

The good news for Cruz Azul fans is last year’s squad has largely been kept together – and last year’s squad was very good indeed. The bad news is the knock on last year’s team was that it was old. This criticism is not diminished by bringing in 32-year-old Maza Rodriguez, 31-year-old Aníbal Zurdo, and Carlos Vela’s older brother, Alejandro.

If, as he did last year, Luis Fernando Tena can once again get the team playing as one of Liga MX’s more potent attacking sides, his squad will be praised for its stability and consistency.

If results don’t go his way, the club will quickly be accused of stagnating.

And there are already rumors of discontent within the camp. One of Tena’s greatest achievements last season was his integration of Marco Fabian into the lineup, who now apparently wants out of Mexico to explore options in Europe.

This ambition has been generating stories at a great rate: Fabian may have been told to sit tight, or he could be heading off in this transfer window. The short of it is a distracted player who was key to the club’s success last year, and whose absence or presence needs to be confirmed for the team to be able to move on with its season.

It's driving us mad too, Marco. (soccerly.com)

It’s driving us mad too, Marco. (soccerly.com)

Group 6 Upset Outlook: MODERATE

Tena took over Cruz Azul in December 2013, after the group stage of last year’s CCL. His predecessor, Guillermo Vázquez, had failed to win either the Clausura title and a nice run in Concachampions wasn’t adequate compensation at all. So it is conceivable Tena’s priority may not be winning every game in the group stage.

Last year, Cruz Azul had a similar group to this one: a Costa Rican opponent, Herediano; and a lighter weight team, Haiti’s Valencia. Vázquez’s approach was to put out a strong team for the opening home game against the Costa Ricans, which La Máquina won 3-0.

He played a weaker team for the next game in Haiti, and very nearly dropped points as a result. The rest of the group was played with comparatively strong lineups, which is why Tena inherited a decent seeding (second) in the knockout phase.

The perils of underestimating the competition were well illustrated by América’s fate last year. La Máquina will certainly want to avoid that, but there are more immediate prizes to chase than a preferential quarterfinal draw.

Cruz Azul should have the squad depth to get through the group, and Tena may have to trust his reserves to do the job if his ageing starters simply cannot handle the extra work, especially if the league proves challenging.

This, and the sense that the club may not react with patience and understanding if early season results continue to go awry, suggests this group might open up. Alajuelense can be presumed to be heading to Mexico City looking for a draw. It will have taken some encouragement from Pachuca’s ability to defend its 1-0 lead with nine men for the last ten minutes of its visit to Estadio Azul.

And Los Manudos know they hold the potential trump card of hosting La Máquina at the end of the group stage, in October, when Liga MX results could be an overriding priority.

In between, the wild card of whatever Chorrillo is able to bring to the party may ultimately decide whether La Máquina glides sedately out of the group and into the next round, or get stuck in the mud of a fight for a quarterfinal berth.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Alajuelense: Ramón Núñez

Stay fit and show us what you can do (diariomas.hn)

Stay fit and show us what you can do (diariomas.hn)

Yes, that Ramón Núñez: the Honduran playmaker who started his career in MLS with FC Dallas, moved on to Olimpia, was named Honduras’s player of the 2007-08 season, bounced into Liga MX, then clocked a little time back with Olimpia in 2010 before giving Europe a try with Leeds United (and some Scunthorpe).

He had some problems with form and injury, landed back at FC Dallas last season, and was training with Alajuelense while seeking out a new contract when it apparently dawned on both parties that each might be what the other was looking for.

Núñez needs playing time. He’s still only 28, he could yet play his way back into the Honduras national team (he was the MVP  of the 2011 Copa Centroamericana), assuming his body will allow him to be the player he used to be.

And Alajuelense needs an attacking spark. The team has confirmed Núnez still needs time to work his way into the lineup, and he won’t feature in its early season matches. But keep an eye out for Núñez toward the second half of the group stage.

If he works out, Los Manudos might be fun rather than merely functional, this year.

Chorillo FC: Alfredo Stephens

The move to Chorrillo makes it three clubs in three seasons for the young attacking player. He’ll turn 20 on Christmas Day of this year, and if he shows well in CCL, he could be looking at a fourth team next year – one outside Panama this time.

Stephens was part of Panama’s 2011 U-17 World Cup squad, the same team captained by emerging Panamanian defender Roberto Chen.

His target over the next two years will surely be to break into the senior national team squad. He can play as either a winger or a striker, though his prospects of playing for Panama will perhaps be better served if he settles in as a goal scorer. Los Canaleros can’t keep Luis Tejada and Blas Perez going indefinitely, and Gabriel Torres will need a strike partner.

Whatever his merits as a player, however, the real reason to keep an eye out for Stephens is in the clip above: if he does score, he doesn’t seem inclined to hold much back in celebration.

Cruz Azul: Hernán Bernardello

Does Cruz Azul scout any leagues other than MLS? (mlssoccer.com)

Does Cruz Azul scout any leagues other than MLS? (mlssoccer.com)

Gerardo Torrado is a key player for Cruz Azul, but he was old last year and he’s older still this season. He played seven CCL games in the last campaign, but it is possible Tena may prefer to keep his midfield lynchpin fresh for the league.

Indeed, this is presumably the reason a guy like Bernardello was brought in this season: as backup for Torrado, with a view to possibly being a long-term replacement. There are other options in the squad, but if neither Torrado or Bernardello plays in the CCL group stage, it would suggest something has gone wrong for one or both of them.

Group 6, Matchday 1: August 5 – Cruz Azul vs. Alajuelense – 7:00 pm (Chicago time)

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For more CONCACAF Champions League previews,

Follow @OTFSoccer

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Austin Fido is OTF’s CONCACAF and USMNT editor, but mostly he’s the guy who won’t shut up about CCL @canetop.

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