CCL 2014-15: Group 7 Preview – Belmopan Bandits, Isidro Metapan & Leon (and Herediano)
Austin Fido brings you what you need to know about CCL 2014-15’s Group 7…
One day, hopefully in the not too distant future, CONCACAF Champions League will be a clash of well-matched teams from the get-go. Sure, it will be the region’s richest clubs, but they’ll be spread around the various members of the confederation, and the world will watch because the stars of the tournament will be the counted among the stars of the world.
And in the parallel universe where this future happens, a group like this – CCL 2014-15 Group 7 – will be at the center of everyone’s attention. Because this year’s Group 7 is a rare breed: León won both Liga MX titles last year; Isidro Metapán is El Salvador’s reigning bicampeón; Belmopan Bandits won both of Belize’s league tournaments last season.
Anyone can have a Champions League, but Group 7 is CONCACAF’s league of Bicampeónes.
EDIT: On Tuesday, August 12, CONCACAF managed to make a predictable decision (expelling Belmopan Bandits from CCL due to inadequate playing facilities) in an unexpected way (a week after the tournament had started).
The loss of the Belizean representative was not too surprising: this has happened in every CCL for the past five years. Hankook Verdes, in 2008-09, was the last team from Belize to compete in the regional club championship – and we must presume the club either destroyed the stadium it used to play Cruz Azul (and lose 6-0) that season, or CONCACAF decided it would never again allow a team from Belize to be trounced on such a shoddy playing surface.
So the Bandits are out, and Herediano has been added at the hour-after-the-eleventh-hour (Costa Rica got the extra slot based on it being the nation from which the best-performing Central American club in last year’s CCL – Alajuelense – hailed. This is in keeping with prior practice.)
The decision isn’t so much the problem as the timing of it – why so late? The episode appears to have shaken CONCACAF and FIFA into action: reports from Belize are that FIFA will step in and effectively run the country’s football for the next couple of years. This may finally result in the necessary upgrades to the national stadium being made; it should at least allow FIFA to figure out what happened to the $1.8 million it apparently granted the Football Federation of Belize to make those upgrades in time for CCL 2014-15.
So Belize may finally be getting the football administration its players deserve (which is to say, one capable of allowing the country’s teams to compete in the region’s showpiece tournament; FIFA’s not brilliant, but it does know a thing or two about getting a shiny new stadium built). Unfortunately, it will happen too late for Belmopan Bandits to participate in CCL, and way too late for this preview.
But Herediano deserves some attention. Rather than rewrite something already written, a quick preview of the latest (and last) Costa Rican team to join this year’s CCL is tacked on to the end of the original post. Scroll down ’til you see it…
Group 7: Belmopan Bandits, Isidro Metapan, Leon
It’s not a particularly respectful thing to suggest, but just being in CCL is an achievement for Belmopan Bandits. This is the first time since the 2008-09 tournament that a team from Belize has been able to take the place reserved for it.
The administrative issues preventing a Belizean team from competing are resolved, and the Bandits’ minimum target will presumably be to not lose every game 6-0 (which was the fate of Belize’s last representative, Hankook Verdes, who ran into Cruz Azul in the 2008-09 preliminary round).
McCaulay is probably his country’s best-known player, since he scored 11 goals in World Cup 2014 qualifying, tying Luis Suarez and Robin van Persie for the unofficial Golden Boot of the preliminary rounds of the Brazil tournament.
But he plays in Atlanta now. So the Bandits will need a new hero or two if they are to prove anything other than makeweights in this group.
The club has opted for stability this off-season, which is entirely reasonable for a team that won two championships last year. Metapán was not as affected by the fallout from El Salvador’s betting scandal as other teams, though the loss of midfielder Andrés Flores to NASL’s New York Cosmos was not insignificant.
Still, last year’s primary attacking duo – Panamanian Nicolás Muñoz and Puerto Rican Hector Ramos – is intact. Behind them on the depth chart are a couple of intriguing prospects: Romeo Parkes is a 23-year-old Jamaican, one of a small but increasing number of his countrymen finding work in the Salvadoran league; David López is a dual-national (USA and Mexico; perhaps also Venezuelan) who played college soccer for UT-Tyler.
Metapán has an eye for foreign forwards. Add in the back-to-back championships, and perhaps Los Caleros have more in common with La Fiera than is typically imagined.
Since returning to Mexico’s top flight for the first time in a decade, León has been making up for lost time. The club has been to two Copa Libertadores and, of course, won two Liga MX titles, since settling back into the top tier of Mexican football in 2012. A CCL title must surely be among La Fiera‘s priorities for this season.
A big step toward that goal, and continued success in the league, was made in the offseason: León hasn’t lost many players over the summer. A broken leg was always likely to keep Luis Montes from going anywhere (he should hopefully be fit again later this year), but the team did well to hang on to Carlos Peña, José Vázquez and manager Gustavo Matosas.
The core defense (Rafa Márquez, Jonny Magallón, Edwin Hernández, and Ignacio González) is experienced; ‘keeper William Yarbrough impressed last season, and may one day be regarded as the unluckiest dual-national of his generation – both Mexico and USMNT have possibly too much available goalkeeping talent for him to get a look for a national team.
New arrivals are primarily South American forwards – Martín Bravo (Argentinian), Marcos Caicedo (Ecuadorian), and Yamilson Rivera (Colombian) – from which it will be hoped a reliable foil for Mauro Boselli will emerge.
All seems set fair for another big year. At least, it did until León opened the new Liga MX campaign with back-to-back losses. If La Fiera doesn’t get it together at the third attempt (8/2 vs. Morelia), it could look to CCL to spark the right kind of form.
Group 7 Upset Outlook: LOW
Auspicious as it may be to have three double-champs in the same group, this is a mismatch.
León’s sluggish start to the season notwithstanding, the club has too much talent on its roster to have any great fear of falling to representatives of two of the weaker leagues in the region.
Isidro Metapán’s mugging of LA Galaxy last year came about because it was the final game of the group stage, the Galaxy had other priorities, and Metapán was finally in mid-season mode.
This time around, Metapán’s home game against the group favorite is first in line, just three days after the Salvadoran club starts its domestic season.
And if León’s poor form persists, Metapán may suffer the misfortune of hosting an unusually motivated Mexican heavyweight: something has to get La Fiera‘s season started, and it might be a drubbing of a CCL opponent.
The matches against Belmopan Bandits look like little more than an opportunity to boost goal difference.
Indeed, León should be looking at itself as a favorite for the top seed in the quarterfinals: its hardest game is up first, when Metapán can be presumed to be at its weakest (since it is barely out of preseason); La Fiera’s closest rival for the top seed will probably be América, and León’s last game of the group is two days after Las Águilas conclude their CCL work for 2014.
If it cares, León will probably know exactly what it needs to do secure the highest seeding heading into the knockout phase. The only upset on the cards here is the outside chance La Fiera doesn’t finish with the best overall record in the CCL 2014-15 group stage.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Belmopan Bandits: Ian Gaynair
You remember Gaynair: he scored a goal against USMNT in last summer’s Gold Cup. If he is left entirely unmarked at a set piece in CCL, he may score one against León or Isidro Metapán.
Gaynair has a knack for making the news off the pitch too: he was one of the Belize national team players an ambitious match-fixer attempted to bribe to…um…lose against USMNT (perhaps soccer’s nefarious gambling impresarios are not the criminal masterminds one might imagine).
His honesty was laudable, especially since it turns out he could have used the money: tax problems cost him a piece of land he’d been hoping to make the site of a new home in Belize. Fortunately, the government recognized it was perhaps a harsh penalty for a man best known for putting his country ahead of personal gain, and Gaynair’s construction project is back on track.
Isidro Metapan: Nicolás Muñoz
He was the Golden Boot winner for CCL 2012-13, and single-handedly destroyed LA Galaxy’s reserves in last year’s edition. Underestimate “NicoGol” at your peril.
Leon: Marcos Caicedo
Last season, Pachuca rode the goals of a young Ecuadorian to a CCL berth. Enner Valencia is at West Ham now, but León took note of the achievement and raided Valencia’s old club, Emelec, for another attacking prospect.
León and Emelec shared a Copa Libertadores group this year, so the signing has more to do with good old-fashioned scouting than any sort of Emelec-to-EPL bandwagon.
Nonetheless, if Caicedo (whose scoring record in Ecuador was about as modest as Valencia’s) makes anything close to his compatriot’s impact on Liga MX, Emelec may not have any young forwards left by this time next season.
Group 7, Matchday 1: August 5 – Isidro Metapán vs. León – 9:00 pm (Chicago time)
Better late than never, Herediano has strolled into its fourth consecutive CCL. The club has a consistent record of modest achievement in the regional tournament: it has never won the competition in any of its many formats; its best performance to date was a quarterfinal appearance in 2012-13 (Los Rojiamarillos knocked out Real Salt Lake in the group stage, and were bounced by LA Galaxy).
Last year, Herediano had the misfortune of being drawn into the same group as eventual champs, Cruz Azul. This year, though lucky to be here at all, the club might be in a similar bind: León is among the favorites for the 2014-15 regional title.
The club is here because, without actually winning anything of consequence, it was the third-best team in Costa Rica’s Primera División, currently the third-best league in CONCACAF (and more pertinently, the best in Central America – making it first in line to scoop up the place vacated by Belize).
This year, the team has started its league campaign with a draw at home to Belén Siglo XXI.
Herediano has had a busy off-season. The club contributed several players to Costa Rica’s World Cup squad, foremost among them Jose Miguel Cubero, who you may remember as the guy who typically replaced Yeltsin Tejeda toward the end of each game La Sele played. He is playing for Blackpool in England now.
But several of the heroes of Brazil are still around: Daniel Cambronero was the third-choice ‘keeper in the squad; Dave Myrie saw some time on the field because Costa Rica started to run out of available defenders toward the end of the tournament; Esteban Granados managed the rare feat of getting a yellow card while sitting on the bench (where he spent most of the tournament, to be fair).
Throw in Leonel Moreira (another ‘keeper in the shadow of Keylor Navas), and forwards Victor Núñez, Olman Vargas and Yendrick “brother of Bryan” Ruiz, and you have a squad comprising a large number of fringe, future and past Costa Rican internationals.
Reinforcements include Panamanian internationl midfielder Gabriel Gómez, who adds to the strong MLS connection running through the squad. Gomez spent much of the 2012 season with Philadelphia Union. Myrie was also (very) briefly with the Union in 2010; Vargas was attached to Columbus Crew in 2012.
Another Panamanian, Brunet Hay, has also joined, adding size to the options up front. Alexander Larín is a 22-year-old Salvadoran international, on loan from Liga MX’s UANL Tigres, and able to play in defense or midfield.
But the guys who may get the most attention if they show up in CCL are Keven Alemán and Antonio Pedroza. Alemán was born in Costa Rica, but played for Canada in the 2013 Gold Cup (he was in the Toronto FC system until he fled the Aron Winter regime) – so the attacking midfielder is part of the emerging generation of Canadian players tasked with returning the nation’s soccer program to a state of relevance.
Pedroza was once rumored to be on the England national team’s radar. The 23-year-old forward was born in England, but grew up in Mexico. He’s bounced around Liga MX over the last few years, made an unsuccessful attempt to break into Crystal Palace’s first team, and has now landed in Herediano, on loan from Cruz Azul.
On paper, this looks like a squad capable of besting Isidro Metapán, which does adjust the make-up of Group 7 slightly. León sent a reserve team to El Salvador and beat Metapán comfortably in the first round of the group stage. Now La Fiera must consider whether the same approach will be sufficient to handle the third-best team in Costa Rica.
Player to watch: Antonio Pedroza
Apparently his Mexican teammates call him “Rooney” because of his English heritage, and the English press was ready to start calling him Chicharito. If he’s half as good as either nickname, he’s a handful.
Group 7, Matchday 2: August 21 – Herediano vs. Isidro Metapán – 9:00 pm (Chicago time)
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Austin Fido chats CCL @canetop. Follow him.