CONCACAF Champions League 2014-15: Quarterfinals Preview, Part 2 – America vs Saprissa & Alajuelense vs DC United
OTF’s CONCACAF editor Austin Fido previews the second two CCL 2014-15 quarterfinal match-ups: America vs. Saprissa and Alajuelense vs. DC United…
If this is truly Costa Rica’s Champions League, these quarterfinals will be the ones to reveal that truth. Saprissa is up against the presumed best team in the tournament, América, and Alajuelense has to take on the competition’s top seed, DC United.
CONCACAF only introduced the idea of seedings for the knockout rounds in the 2012-13 edition. It is a laughably small sample size, but since the introduction of the seeding system, both CCL finals have been contested by the one and two seeds. Home advantage is significant in this tournament, especially in its current format.
If everything is going the way it usually does in CCL, expect the higher seeds – America and DC United – to prevail in these matches. If not, it could mean another good year for Costa Rican soccer is just getting started.
(7) SAPRISSA vs. (2) AMÉRICA
1st Leg – 2/25 @ Saprissa (8pm CST); 2nd Leg – 3/4 @ América (9pm CST)
Two giants of their respective leagues and this competition. América has been to five CONCACAF regional finals, and won each time. Saprissa has also been to the final five times, and come away victorious on three occasions.
Neither team has enjoyed great success since this tournament reformatted and started calling itself Champions League, but La S is the last club from outside Mexico to have won the regional title (in 2005) and Las Águilas kicked off the current period of Liga MX domination of this competition by winning the 2006 edition.
Each club is also its respective country’s reigning league champion: Saprissa won the Costa Rican Primera División’s Torneo de Invierno playoffs in December, around the same time America was winning Liga MX’s Apertura tournament.
Past and present achievements make this quarterfinal a clash of CONCACAF titans.
How They Got Here:
Saprissa won Group 2 by beating Sporting Kansas City 2-0 on the final match day to squeak through on a head-to-head tiebreaker. It was a competitive group, and KC is one of those MLS teams inclined to give the CCL group stage some respect: Saprissa isn’t here because yet another MLS team couldn’t be bothered to try.
What They’ve Been Doing Recently:
Saprissa clinched qualification for next year’s CCL by winning Costa Rica’s Torneo de Invierno. The club has won six out of eight games in the league so far in 2015, including all three of its home games.
Encouraging form is offset by the ill-timed loss of several key players for a variety of reasons. Defender Heiner Mora tweaked his knee in early February, midfielder Juan Bustos (whose goal in Kansas City is a big part of the reason Saprissa is in the CCL quarterfinals) suffered a terrible injury to his knee even more recently, and forward David Ramirez joined Ligue 1’s Evian in the January transfer window.
Costa Rican clubs are better than most around the region at keeping their player development pipelines flowing, but any team in CONCACAF would struggle after losing three starters in a month.
One To Watch: Ariel Rodríguez
He is joint top-scorer in this year’s CCL after scoring five goals in the group stage. If he can add a few more goals to his tally in the quarterfinals, chances are Saprissa is heading to the next round.
He has recently dropped out of the preferred starting lineup in league play, so a return to form would do his personal prospects, as well as those of his club, a great deal of good.
How They Got Here:
Coasted through Group 8, scoring 19 goals – of which 16 were against utterly outclassed Bayamón FC – and conceding just three, with sparing use of front-line players.
Las Águilas wobbled a little in a 1-1 draw in Guatemala against Comunicaciones but recovered to qualify with relative ease.
What They’ve Been Doing Recently:
Winning. America topped the Liga MX Apertura table, won the championship title (thereby qualifying for CCL 2015-16), and is back among the league leaders in the early stages of the Clausura, having won three of its last four games.
This is impressive in itself, all the more because Las Águilas made the unusual decision to offload a successful coach (Antonio Mohamed) and appoint Gustavo Matosas, the man who led León to its success in 2013-14, but struggled to match those achievements subsequently. It will be hard for Matosas to surpass Mohamed’s brief record of success with America in Liga MX, but he will doubtless be eager to bring the club its sixth CONCACAF title and first of the Champions League era.
One To Watch: Ventura Alvarado
What’s that? Why yes, Alvarado was a guy we recommended looking out for in the group stage of this competition – well remembered!
This recommendation is because he has progressed significantly in the intervening months. Back in August, he was a fringe player who looked most likely to get minutes in a weak CCL group while Mohamed focused his best squad on winning in Liga MX.
Fast forward to February: Alvarado is in danger of becoming a regular starter for América. Now he looks a candidate for minutes in CCL because (we assume) the tournament will be a priority of the next weeks, not an afterthought.
The young American defender is eligible to play for both El Tri and USMNT. He needs a little more time to establish himself at club level, but if he’s able to do so at Club América, and Las Águilas are officially the champions of CONCACAF by April, he could play himself into this summer’s Gold Cup – for whichever of the teams he’s qualified to play for has the courage to pick him first.
(8) ALAJUELENSE vs. (1) DC UNITED
1st Leg – 2/26 @ Alajuelense (7pm CST); 2nd Leg – 3/4 @ DC United (7pm CST)
Twelve months or so ago, when MLS’s representatives in CCL 2014-15 were confirmed, there was much bewailing and lamenting the fact DC United was in the mix at all. DC was awful in 2013, record-breakingly awful. The team had snuck into CCL via US Open Cup, and to some this illustrated everything that was wrong with allowing that tournament decide one of the USA’s regional club championship slots.
Now things look a little different. The 2013 MLS Cup champion, Sporting Kansas City, got beat fair and square in the group stage by Saprissa. The Western Conference champions, Portland Timbers, never quite figured out whether they wanted CCL to be a priority or not, and ended up getting knocked out by a team that knew it wanted to be in the knockout rounds: Olimpia. And the 2013 Supporters’ Shield winners, New York Red Bulls, never mustered any real enthusiasm for the tournament and were bounced out of the competition by the worst team in MLS 2014, Montreal Impact.
So much for the best teams in MLS. As for DC United, it regrouped, refocused, won the Eastern Conference in the regular season (so it will be in CCL again for 2015-16), and is in these knockout rounds not just as the only US club but also as the top seed in the tournament. How d’you like them apples?
Now DC faces Alajuelense, the Costa Rican club that has made a habit of slaying CCL giants in recent years. In 2013-14, América was a pre-tournament favorite: Los Manudos took down Las Águilas in the group stage. In this edition, the draw put defending ConcaChampion Cruz Azul in Alajuelense’s group: adiós, La Máquina.
This match-up is Alajuelense’s chance to demonstrate it doesn’t just deflate the reputations of Mexican clubs.
How They Got Here:
Emerged from a tough group comprising Cruz Azul and surprisingly competitive Panamanian side Chorrillo FC. As such, Alajuelense’s scant points total (six) and goals scored (four) is best regarded as evidence of the unusually even level of competition in Group 6, rather than a sign of weakness.
What They’ve Done Recently:
Alajuelense topped the Primera División’s Torneo de Invierno table, losing just three of 22 games in league play and conceding only 15 goals. But the club got bounced out of the playoffs by eventual champion, Saprissa.
The team isn’t looking quite as solid in the Torneo de Verano: it has lost three times and conceded 11 in its first 10 games, though it is scoring regularly (16 goals through 10 matches), and is among the early-season league leaders.
In the winter transfer window, Alajuelense welcomed midfielder Diego Calvo back from a stint in Scandinavia (though he arrived needing to work on his fitness), and picked up a young Argentine, Leonel Peralta.
One To Watch:
EDIT: Oversight! Pemberton is suspended for six (SIX!) CCL matches for his part in Alajuelense’s scuffle with Cruz Azul at the conclusion of their group match back in October. Do we run from our mistakes at OTF Soccer? Nope. Let it sit there as a reminder to this writer to double-check before giving full voice to his unrequited Pemberton love (Hi Patrick!).
Still, he’s out – so we need a new one to watch: Leonel Peralta
Jonathan McDonald has scored five goals in Alajuelense’s opening nine games of the Verano and Armando Alonso scored three of the four the team managed to get in the CCL group stage, but this is a team whose greatest strength still looks like its defense.
‘Keeper Patrick Pemberton is an Alajuelense lifer (aside from a loan stint early in his career, he’s only ever played for La Liga) and an important part of what has been a highly capable defense in CCL for the last couple of seasons.
Pemberton’s absence merely adds to the pressure on Alajuelense’s suddenly shaky defense. A full strength back line for CCL can be expected to include Porfirio López (more than 100 competitive appearances for La Liga; six caps for Costa Rica), Kenner Gutiérrez (97 competitive appearances for Los Manudos; part of Costa Rica’s 2009 U-20 World Cup squad), and Jhonny Acosta (more than 100 appearances for Alajuelense; 25 caps for Costa Rica, including a couple of appearances in the 2014 World Cup).
And Peralta, a 22-year-old Argentine of limited experience with any professional first team. He’s slotted in as a regular starter to the otherwise seasoned defensive unit, so should be lining up at left back against DC.
How They Got Here:
A while back, this site offered some advice to MLS clubs on how to improve performance in CCL. DC United spent much of the group stage ignoring that advice, and it worked: it’s hard to argue that the team holding the top seed in the tournament has done it all wrong.
In a more competitive group, DC’s approach to CCL might have got found out. But Ben Olsen stuck to the tried-and-tested MLS strategy of expending the least effort possible in the group stage, and his was the only team in this year’s competition to win all its group matches.
It will be very surprising if Olsen leans heavily on the reserves now that DC is in the knockout rounds, but he’s made the old MLS habits pay unexpected dividends thus far.
What They’ve Done Recently:
Sticking to those old habits, Olsen guided his team through the traditional MLS preseason schedule of warm-weather training stints inside the US paired with occasional darts back home to recover and keep the sponsors happpy.
The club picked up one of the better-looking preseason trophies in the process, and appears as well prepared as any MLS side usually is when it follows its usual approach to getting ready for a new season.
Whether it might have been wiser to seek out fitter, stronger, better-resembling-Alajuelense opposition is a moot point now. DC got this far with the usual methods, little surprise that it is sticking with them.
Also unsurprising, given his success in 2014, Olsen has kept the core of his squad together. Additions to date have been few and far between, indicative perhaps of a coach who knows his best team is already in camp and he can afford to take his time bringing in new faces. Versatile Finnish defender/midfielder Markus Halsti is an interesting addition to the squad, and may be the only one of the new signings who slots straight into a starting role.
One To Watch: Fabian Espindola
Espindola is looking at a lengthy suspension in MLS to start the regular season, so CCL is all he has to play for in the short term (or longer term, if the ongoing CBA negotiations end up delaying the start of the MLS season).
He scored one the goals of the tournament to date in the group stage, and will be key to DC’s efforts to unlock Alajuelense’s defense.
For all our CCL coverage, follow @OTFSoccer
CONCACAF editor Austin Fido chats CCL @canetop.