CCL 2014-15: Group Stage, Round 6 Round-Up
The group stage is over, taking CCL with it until the spring. Austin Fido chokes back his grief and looks back at the final round of the opening phase of CONCACAF’s Champions League…
This has been a good year for CONCACAF Champions League. The tournament is often criticized for a group stage that functions more as an example of the region’s footballing problems than as a showcase for its best clubs.
This year alone, the competition suffered the embarrassment of having to kick a team out during the group stage because no one bothered to check on its pitch until after the first round of matches. Nor is it a great tribute to the competitive strength of the region’s soccer when a club clinches the top seed in the showcase tournament’s knockout round after sending just 14 players and an assistant coach to its final game of the group.
But look past the farcical circumstances of Belmopan Bandits’ later-than-the-last-minute expulsion and the too-cool-for-CONCACAF attitude of DC United, and you will find one of the more even and entertaining group stages this tournament has provided for quite some time.
The credit for this is mostly due to Costa Rica. There have been three Costa Rican clubs in CCL before: in 2009-10, when none made it out of the group stage; last year, when Alajuelense was the only representative to make it to the knockout rounds.
This year, however, all three clubs from Costa Rica are into the quarterfinals, forming the largest bloc of teams from one country remaining in the tournament.
This can – perhaps, should – be read as a continuation of Costa Rican soccer’s magnificent 2014: the men’s national team made the World Cup quarterfinal, and won Copa Centroamericana; the women’s national team is in the final of the CONCACAF Women’s Championship, and has secured a berth in the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
We will have to wait until next year to see whether 2014 is a high point for Costa Rica’s football, or part of a significant change to CONCACAF’s competitive landscape.
For now, it ought to be enough to thank Costa Rica for shaking up the global game on multiple fronts, but in CONCACAF most of all. With particular regard to CCL, the tournament is too often dismissed as predictable, particularly by a persistent cadre of MLS fans and pundits who appear to regard the competition as simultaneously too easy and too difficult.
Ultimately, the point of CCL is to raise the standard of the game across the region. The tournament has long suffered from inconsistent support from its member federations. And it is still afflicted by the fact that it is extremely difficult to deliver eight competitive groups of teams drawn from regional soccer programs of wildly different levels of participation and funding.
But there is an encouraging trajectory, even if only three out of eight groups saw their outcome go down to the final round this year. The last time just two Liga MX clubs made the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF club championship was 2008, when just two Liga MX clubs were allowed to enter.
It is still wise to assume a Mexican team will win CCL this year: Pachuca has a habit of winning this tournament whenever it qualifies; América looks like the best team in Liga MX, which generally correlates with being the best team in the region.
But there are signs the overall standard in this competition is improving. Even DC United, the only team in this year’s CCL to win all four of its group matches, needed a bit of luck and a bit of magic to get maximum points.
CCL is not yet at the stage where the presumed best teams have to play to their best to make it into the knockout rounds. But the three-team group format has reduced the margin of error for the top clubs to something resembling a truly competitive tournament.
As Cruz Azul, León, RBNY and Portland Timbers will attest, DC United’s canter to the top seed this year can be considered the exception, no longer the rule, of CONCACAF’s club championship.
And for that, mostly, we can thank Costa Rica’s clubs, all three of which brushed aside allegedly superior opponents, changing the look of the CCL quarterfinals at least for this year.
Here’s how the eight quarterfinalists stack up in the final seedings:
1. DC United: Of the teams that made the knockout rounds, DC United arguably put in the least effort – fielding predominantly second-tier lineups for three of its four group games. So it is odd to see this club at the top of the pile heading into the quarterfinals. Odd, but not undeserved: DC doesn’t make the rules of the competition. It was handed the weakest group in the tournament, and took full advantage of its good fortune. Points Total: 12; Goal Difference: +5
2. América: Two teams – Pachuca and Portland – had to lose in the final round for Las Águilas to claim the second seed. Still, América is the biggest club remaining in the tournament, and the second most successful club in the history of CONCACAF regional club championships. The unlikely combination of results that brought Las Águilas to a high seed might be interpreted as karma intervening to bring CCL’s reality closer to América’s reputation. Points Total: 10; Goal Difference: +16
3. Herediano: Presumably, no one is more surprised to see Herediano among the top seeds in the CCL 2014-15 knockout rounds than the club’s players and supporters. This is the team that wasn’t even supposed to be here, and was dropped into a group with León – Liga MX’s defending Bicampeones. And now it has home advantage for the quarterfinal, to try to extend this unlikely run for at least another round. Points Total: 10; Goal Difference: +7
4. Montreal Impact: L’Impact probably won’t be considered favorite for any match-up in the knockout rounds, but it will at least carry home advantage into the quarterfinal against Pachuca – and Montreal will hope that advantage takes the form of the 55,000-strong crowd it drew the last time it made a CCL Championship round match. A packed stadium on a chilly night in Canada will be a tough proposition for any visitor, and will be the basis of Montreal’s hopes of traveling deeper into this competition. Points Total: 10; Goal Difference: +3
5. Pachuca: Los Tuzos have been to four regional club championship finals in their history, and won them all. Pachuca has every right to be confident about its chances in this edition, despite the fact it dropped to a much lower seeding than expected after a surprise loss to Real España in Honduras in the final round of the group stage. The odds are against Los Tuzos enjoying home advantage in any of the knockout rounds ahead, but that may be to their benefit: if they make the final, they will presumably have proved themselves adept at playing the second leg away from home. Points Total: 9; Goal Difference: +9
6. Olimpia: It has been a long time since a Honduran club made a significant impact on this tournament – none has won it since 1988; none has made the final since 2000. On both those occasions, however, the team in question was Olimpia. Los Leones will not be anyone’s favorite to win any match-up they might conceivably face in the knockout rounds, but they are only in this phase of the competition because Portland underestimated them. Similar complacency on the part of future opponents is their best chance to continue moving toward the final. Points Total: 9; Goal Difference: +7
7. Saprissa: La S has the toughest draw of any of the Costa Rican clubs in the quarterfinals – it must play América. Few will expect to see Saprissa in the semifinals, but if it gets that far, it should be considered a favorite to win the tournament. Points Total: 7; Goal Difference: +3
8. Alajuelense: Don’t be fooled by the low points total – Alajuelense was in the most competitive group in this year’s CCL, and survived unbeaten. Los Manudos are in the quarterfinals at the expense of a big-name Mexico City club for the second year running. Consequently, they are perhaps the only team in the tournament that can legitimately claim to have no fear of any remaining potential opponent: after all, they beat defending champions – Cruz Azul – to get to the knockout rounds, and bested this year’s current favorite – America – over two games in last year’s group stage. Points Total: 6; Goal Difference: +1
It is foolhardy to make predictions about a knockout phase that won’t kick off for four months (the first round of the quarterfinals is provisionally scheduled to run from February 24 to 26, 2015): all the clubs involved will likely make changes to their rosters in that time.
But we know the match-ups:
(1) DC United vs. (8) Alajuelense
(2) América vs. (7) Saprissa
(3) Herediano vs. (6) Olimpia
(4) Montreal Impact vs. (5) Pachuca
The seedings imply we’ll see DC play Montreal in an all-MLS semifinal, while América takes Herediano as a prelude to DCU playing Las Águilas for the regional club title. The group stage – and in particular this round – suggests we can hope for a few surprises ahead.
Here’s the round-up of the final round of group play in CCL 2014-15…
Real España 3 – 2 Pachuca
Without ever offering any real doubt over the identity of its winner, Group 1 has provided consistent entertainment in the group stage, but it saved its best for last: not just a high scoring game, but a genuine upset.
In the end, Enrique Meza paid for indulging complacency. The last time Pachuca played Real España, Meza put out a stronger team, and watched it stroll to a comfortable 4-1 win at home. With qualification for the quarterfinals assured and some work still to do in Liga MX (Los Tuzos are by no means guaranteed a place in the Apertura playoffs, though they were sixth in the table heading into this game), Meza rested every player who had started the team’s league match against Pumas on 10/19.
It still wasn’t a weak Pachuca lineup: Matías Alustiza, Miguel Herrera, Rodolfo Pizarro and Dieter Villalpando have all been regular starters for Los Tuzos – just not recently. Abraham Carreño scored a hat-trick earlier in the group stage; Simón Almeida is just 19, but has been an emerging talent for the last four seasons.
But Meza underestimated the degree to which Real España might have improved since these teams met at the beginning of August – which was La Realeza’s second competitive game of the new season.
Edder Delgado, arguably the most recognizable name in Real España’s squad, issued an early hint that this match might not be as easy for Pachuca as the prior meeting between the two clubs – he opened the scoring in the 3rd minute.
The pattern of the game was perhaps as expected: Los Tuzos had much more possession (more than 60%), and did more ambitious things – such as Alustiza’s dainty back-heel to play in Almeida for Pachuca’s first equalizer.
Real España did not lie down, however, and the two sides went into the break tied, 2-2.
If Carreño hadn’t picked up a second yellow card early in the second half, maybe the match would have continued to generate a high volume of goals – certainly, there continued to be chances.
But Delgado put the home team ahead for good in the 64th minute, with a thundering shot from distance that would seem likely to remain one of the more memorable goals of the tournament.
Several favorites of the group stage sent reserve teams to lose in Central America in this round, and Pachuca’s loss was by no means the worst. But Los Tuzos didn’t just surrender the top seed for the knockout rounds (which they would have been assured with a win since prior results ensured the only team that might catch them – Portland Timbers – was out of the running), they also slipped below América in the seedings.
The two remaining Liga MX teams are the default tournament favorites, and are now seeded to meet in the final. Should they each get that far, Pachuca will concede home advantage to Las Águilas because it underestimated the ability and resolve of Real España.
Saprissa 2 – 0 Sporting Kansas City
Only a win would do for Saprissa to make the quarterfinals, and it had to be the right kind of win.
It was a potentially precarious position for the home team: if Sporting KC scored one goal, Saprissa would need to score three just to force the issue of qualification to the drawing of lots; if the MLS side scored twice, La S would have needed five goals to progress.
In the end, the Costa Rican club got through by scoring merely twice, thanks in part to Peter Vermes’s decision to prioritize defense over attack. KC’s top-scorer, Dom Dwyer, stayed on the bench until the 65th minute – by which point Sporting really needed a goal
The home team’s defense coped admirably with the task of holding down a clean sheet to minimize the number of goals required: KC only got one shot on target. At the other end, La S also leaned heavily on its defenders.
Heiner Mora tapped in the opening goal in the 22nd minute, after Eric Kronberg couldn’t keep hold of an on-target header off a set piece.
The second also came from a set piece of sorts: with the air of a man lobbing balls in for collection after training, Adolfo Machado launched a throw-in into the penalty area, a weak clearance teed up a strong shot, which was deflected to Mora for a cross back into the six-yard box – Ariel Rodríguez tapped in.
KC’s cause wasn’t helped by a couple of first-half injuries, which forced Benny Feilhaber (replaced by Soony Saad) and Igor Julião (for whom Jacob Peterson stepped in) to make early exits from the game.
But when KC’s best form of defense from the kick-off was to get a goal, thereby forcing Saprissa to score at least three times, the decision to leave Dwyer on the bench at the start was one always likely to attract criticism if the MLS team was bounced from the tournament because it couldn’t find the net.
That is what happened; but it is a little harsh to bash Vermes – the one coach in MLS who has consistently appeared to take CCL seriously over the last couple of years – for failing to respect the competition. He picked just about as strong a team defensively as he could, clearly reasoning that Saprissa would attack from the kick-off and making it his priority to contain, out-possess, and grind down his opponent.
The injuries to Feilhaber and Julião constrained Vermes’s ability to make any major adjustments to personnel at half-time. Indeed, Dwyer came on at just about the earliest moment he could, given the fact that one more injury would have left KC down a man once the third substitution had been spent.
Still, the overall strategy was to try to get out of Costa Rica without using the best-possible lineup from the start. As the only team to date in this year’s tournament to have beaten a Costa Rican opponent, Sporting Kansas City perhaps had better grounds for holding back than either León or Cruz Azul.
Vermes’s game plan did not work out. And it was a plan built on an assumption proven flawed by the events that followed: KC could get of its group without fielding its strongest available starting lineup for its toughest game.
Saprissa packed its stadium, played smart and well, and claimed just reward for its endeavor: a CCL quarterfinal berth for the first time since 2010-11 (when La S lost to Real Salt Lake at the semifinal stage).
New York Red Bulls 1 – 1 Montreal Impact
There is a line of reasoning among some RBNY fans that the CCL format is flawed because the Red Bulls were eliminated after just three games despite only conceding one goal.
Unfortunately, the traditional measure of determining whether one team is better than another is the number of goals scored, not conceded – and whether such scoring translates into wins. RBNY only managed to score twice and win once in its first three CCL matches, and that is why it was bounced out of the tournament despite an unusually (by its standards this season) solid defensive performance.
Montreal, by contrast, had three wins out of three, sauntering into this game with the luxury of having nothing better to do with its time than trounce RBNY on its way to maximum points in CCL (since L’Impact hasn’t had much at stake in MLS for almost as long as the CCL group stage has been in progress).
It didn’t work out as planned for Montreal, which was as much testament to the team’s well-documented shortcomings as it was credit to the Red Bulls’ reserves.
In an unexpectedly even game, L’Impact scored first, in the 71st minute, which seemed likely to be all that would be required to win the match, since RBNY had struggled to create chances all night.
But Montreal couldn’t hold on. The visitors dozed at a set piece, allowing Connor Lade to pounce on a flick-on and glance the ball past Evan Bush from what ought to have been an offside position (but wasn’t).
A win would have given L’Impact the second seed in the knockout rounds, and home advantage all the way up to the final.
The higher seed would not have made much difference to the perception Montreal is the weakest team still in this tournament; it is, after all, the worst in MLS this year (though it retains a mathematical chance of finishing second-worst heading into the final round of the regular season).
By the time the knockout rounds kick off, however, that perception may have changed. L’Impact will have a few months to retool and regroup. And the last time Montreal was in a CCL quarterfinal – in the 2008-09 edition – it packed more than 50,000 fans into Olympic Stadium and beat Santos Laguna 2-0.
L’Impact lost the return leg, 5-2, but if it can muster the same volume of support this time around, and find a defense in the off-season, it will be as testing an opponent as any team remaining in the competition.
Tauro FC 0 – 1 DC United
Leave it to DC United to devalue its own achievement.
CONCACAF has only been using the current Champions League format for three seasons, so there isn’t a long history of chasing high seedings for optimal advantage in the knockout rounds. Nonetheless, DC is the first MLS team to secure the top seed for the latter stages of CCL. This is a big deal.
In the limited history of the format (two complete tournaments), the one and two seeds after the group stage have made the final on both occasions. So precedent makes DC favorite to at least make the last round of this competition.
This is a little embarrassing for CCL, because DC sent 14 players (a match squad should be 18) and an assistant coach to Panama for the game that would determine whether it clinched the number one seed in the tournament.
So the top-ranked team in CCL 2014-15 is one that cared so little for the competition it couldn’t even be bothered to send a full squad to its final match of the group stage.
Under the circumstances, the goal that clinched DC’s quarterfinal seeding was perfect.
An accidental goal for the couldn’t-care-less favorites.
To be fair to DC, it was merely playing the hand it was dealt. The club had a relatively weak group, got lucky when it needed to (it dodged a bullet when Waterhouse stuck to a poorly conceived and executed game plan on its visit to RFK Stadium) and arrived at this game with a quarterfinal place assured. It knew Tauro wasn’t a particularly good team, and it also knew the top seed was a long shot – no one expected Pachuca to lose to Real España.
There was little reason to get overexcited about winning a fourth straight CCL game; certainly the risk of injury to key players outweighed the potential benefit of getting 12 points (which might have seen DC seeded no better than fourth had other results gone against them).
Having done almost everything possible to tempt fate, DC got all the luck in this game. Tauro was positive, created many chances, but proved as inept in front of goal as it had been throughout this group stage.
DC got a fluke goal off a fortunate deflection, three points, and will carry home advantage for as long as it can stay alive in the knockout rounds.
The club knows it has tougher challenges ahead, starting with Alajuelense – serial conqueror of Mexico City’s best teams – in the quarterfinals.
Olimpia 3 – 1 Portland Timbers
Don Garber did MLS owners a favor recently by ranting at Jurgen Klinsmann on their behalf. He made himself look silly, but we can only assume he was acting on the wishes of those who invested in teams in his league.
He would do well to ask those same owners to do him a favor by taking CCL a little more seriously.
It is the stated ambition of MLS to be one of the world’s “top” leagues by 2022. “Top” can be measured in many ways, and doubtless MLS will seize on whichever metric first allows it to make the claim: tickets sold, TV ratings or revenue, some less tangible standard like “most entertaining”.
But the only meaningful way to make the claim is by consistently beating teams from other leagues. Unfortunately, MLS clubs have a regrettable habit of ducking the challenge.
In this year’s CCL, the New York Red Bulls were the most egregious offenders. It is said misery loves company, so perhaps it is no surprise Portland decided to join RBNY on the list of MLS clubs that failed the CCL challenge.
The Timbers had a pretty easy ride through CCL up to this point: maximum points abetted by being drawn with Alpha United, one of the weakest teams in the tournament. The only thing Portland needed to do in this round was not lose to Olimpia by more than two goals – indeed, it could even afford to lose by two goals as long as it scored two of its own.
Didn’t happen. Caleb Porter brought a strong squad to Honduras, but first-choice ‘keeper Donovan Ricketts stayed home, while Diego Valeri, Fanendo Adi and Darlington Nagbe only made the bench.
The message was clear: the Timbers cared enough about CCL to bring much of their best team to play Olimpia away, but not enough to play that team from the kick off.
Los Leones, who had won their last six home games by an aggregate score of 24-1, were two goals up in the first five minutes.
Romell Quioto opened the scoring with a shot that probably should be considered a fluke, albeit one he was very deliberately trying to engineer.
Even at two goals down, the Timbers just needed a goal to progress – which they got courtesy of a deflected shot by Ben Zemanski in the 52nd minute.
Porter had brought Diego Valeri on at half-time, and the playmaker made a noticeable difference, especially after Los Leones responded to Portland’s goal by scoring their third in the 54th minute.
At 3-1, Olimpia knew they were through if the score held, but would need to score twice more if the Timbers could get a second.
What followed was an extremely entertaining game. Portland pressed ever more frantically for a second goal, especially after Adi and Nagbe joined the game in the 71st minute. Olimpia oscillated between trying to get a fourth and simply trying to contain their increasingly desperate guests.
Desperation leads to rash decisions: the referee handed out 10 yellow cards, of which seven were incurred by Portland. But no one got sent off. Even the disciplinary report reflected a tense but well-contested match.
Ultimately, the team which cared most won the game and the group.
As Caleb Porter said after the match: “In the end we fell short, but the nice thing is we move on from that and we’ve got seven guys that are rested.”
If that is your priority, you are better off out of the tournament. Porter will focus on his preferred competition – MLS – while Olimpia enjoy more CCL, which it put its best effort toward (it is alleged the club handed out 20,000 tickets to this game just to create the appropriate atmosphere to lift the team to its best). This is fair: both parties got what they really wanted.
In the meantime, Don Garber might want to sit down with Merritt Paulson and the rest of MLS’s owners and ask how it is they plan to be considered one of the best leagues in the world if they intend to continue to be among the least ambitious participants in CCL.
Alajuelense 1 – 1 Cruz Azul
They did it again. For the second year running, Alajuelense vanquished one of Mexico’s top clubs, bouncing a pre-tournament favorite from CCL at the group stage.
Luis Fernando Tena started seven of the players he’d started for the second leg of last year’s CCL final. Of the players who kicked off La Máquina’s prior league game, only Christian Giménez was left out of the lineup (he joined the match in the 64th minute). And this was the exact team which had started Cruz Azul’s 4-0 home win over América on October 4. Don’t say Tena wasn’t taking this game seriously.
Los Manudos went toe-to-toe with CCL’s defending champs from the start, and scored in the 2nd minute. Rain and an artificial surface combined for a skidding, awkward bounce off the turf that both teams sought to exploit throughout.
Alajuelense’s goal arrived courtesy of a deflection that wrong-footed the defense and let Armando Alonso in to score at the far post.
Cruz Azul responded through Gerardo Torrado, who skipped a shot past Patrick Pemberton in the 9th minute.
The teams traded chances throughout, including free kicks that clanged off the frame of the goal. But the home side clung on for the point it needed to win the group.
La Liga was a semifinalist last year. It has a realistic hope of at least making the final this year. Alajuelense is one of just two teams to win a CCL knockout round series without home advantage: it beat Arabe Unido in the 2013-14 quarterfinals.
DC United will be a tougher test than the Panamanian club, but Los Manudos went to Azteca and won last year, and got a draw at Estadio Azul this season. They won’t be afraid of a trip to RFK Stadium. Nor should they fear playing either Pachuca or Montreal Impact if they reach the semifinals.
Alajuelense is the region’s foremost upset expert at the moment – which it makes it the most dangerous eighth seed this tournament has seen since it introduced seedings for knockout rounds.
Unsurprisingly, given that this match counted for absolutely nothing, León elected to give its reserves a run. Metapán countered with something closer to a full strength team, because why would you deny your players the chance to test themselves against even the reserves of one of Mexico’s better teams?
Both sides seemed intent on having fun, as suggested by the fact there were no yellow cards issued in the game.
Henry Hernández, the Metapan ‘keeper, made some pretty saves throughout, as his goal was pressured regularly by León.
But the match stayed scoreless until the 55th minute.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you haven’t heard of José Jair Vargas: he’s a 19-year-old with three minutes in Liga MX to his name to date. Gustavo Matosas brought Vargas and Yamilson Rivera on at half-time, essentially committing his team to 45 minutes of all-out attack.
The two young forwards scored two goals each as León finally broke Hernández’s resistance.
A late consolation goal from Metapán’s CCL scoring legend Nico Muñoz was the only major interruption to León’s domination of the latter stages of the game.
The result doesn’t mean a great deal to the tournament. But if Vargas goes on to achieve great things in his career, remember he scored his first goals as a professional in CCL.
As gets mentioned at least once per round-up on this site, América got bounced out of last year’s CCL at the group stage.
Las Águilas understandably took no chances in their last match of this year’s opening phase of the tournament.
América is the best team in Liga MX at the moment, but that was the case in 2013-14, and it didn’t count for much – which may serve to explain why Antonio Mohamed rested just two players from the lineup that started his club’s 2-0 win over Monterrey on 10/18.
The decision probably cost América its next league game (a 3-2 loss to Ronaldinho’s Querétaro), but there is a reason Liga MX teams have been such consistent winners of CCL over the last decade: they prioritize the competition when necessary.
Mohamed left Martín Zúñiga, the tournament’s top scorer after five rounds, on the bench because Zúñiga is not yet a trusted starter in the squad. Instead, Oribe Peralta led the line up front – and scored both goals in exactly the sort of routine home win América needed to banish the memory of last year’s failure.
But for DC United’s good fortune in Panama, Las Águilas would have been the unlikely, but not undeserving, top seed in the knockout rounds after this result. Instead, they settle for the second seed, and the knowledge they are the CCL 2014-15 front-runners for as long as their impressive form continues.
The quarterfinal round of CONCACAF Champions League 2014-15 is provisionally scheduled to start February 24-26, 2015 .
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OTF’s Austin Fido often enjoys CCL @canetop. Follow him.