CONCACAF Champions League 2014-15: Quarterfinals – Saprissa vs America & Alajuelense vs DC United – 1st Leg Round-Up
OTF’s Austin Fido recaps the first legs of the second two quarterfinals of CCL 2014-15…
The first set of CCL quarterfinal first legs yielded two draws and modest advantage for the teams hosting the return fixtures. The second pair of games in this opening stage of the knockout rounds provided much more decisive results: América looks as good as through to the semifinals, and Alajuelense doesn’t seem too far behind.
Here are the recaps…
SAPRISSA 0-3 AMERICA
Oof. That sound you hear is the abrupt stalling of the Costa Rica’s Champions League hype train. This match-up was between the two reigning champions of their respective leagues. And they’re two teams making a solid start at defending their titles in 2015: Saprissa came into this game on top of the league in Costa Rica; América was second in Liga MX. A genuine clash of champions, and Las Águilas ran away with it – on the road.
Losing at home in CCL is bad, losing by three goals is worse: Saprissa isn’t coming back from this. La S hasn’t scored three goals on the road in a competitive match since October – and it lost that game, 4-3. The team might conceivably have overturned a one or two goal deficit, maybe even turned a draw to its advantage. But the notion Saprissa can stroll into Azteca and beat América by three goals is too far-fetched to endorse.
It would be one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of this competition. Were La S to pull it off (it won’t), it deserves the satisfaction of putting a few naysayers in their place. So call OTF Soccer a naysayer, and make your point, Saprissa (not going to happen).
The Costa Rican club will justifiably be frustrated with the result. On another day, the home team would have won this match. On most days, this game would have been a draw. Saprissa had given up a lot of possession to América, but both sides fashioned chances they’d expect to score more often than not. The match was 0-0 heading into the last 10 minutes, and 2-2 would have been an equally fair reflection of the pattern of play. It seemed to be one of those games where the ball wouldn’t go in for either side.
But as the second half unfolded, Saprissa had got weaker while Las Águilas strengthened. La S had made two substitutions by the 73rd minute: Adolfo Machado and Sebastián Diana – both part of the team’s first-choice defense – were off; Néstor Monge and Mynor Escoe, emerging members of the first team (to be charitable) were on. América, by contrast, had strengthened appreciably.
Gustavo Matosas put out a starting lineup containing four players who have not been regular starters for him recently in Liga MX: Érick Pimentel, Martín Zúñiga, Moisés Velasco and Carlos Darwin Quintero (who is a big part of Matosas’s plans, but has been suspended for the last couple of rounds of the domestic league). By the 62nd minute, Pimentel had been replaced by Pablo Aguilar, Zúñiga was out for Oribe Peralta, and Osvaldo Martínez made way for Rubens Sambueza.
It was arguably a more potent lineup that finished the match for América than had started it. For example, Peralta and Quintero have each picked up CCL Golden Boot awards in recent years.
And that lineup bagged three goals in seven minutes, starting with Pablo Aguilar’s 79th minute header (assisted by Sambueza) and concluding with Peralta’s second goal in the 85th (his first had arrived four minutes earlier). What both sides had been missing was finishing, and Matosas put that right for his team with decisive substitutions.
By contrast, the arrival of forward Jonathan Moya for Saprissa (one goal in seven appearances for La S in 2015) in the 86th minute seemed much too little, way too late.
It will take a combination of staggering complacency on the part of América and stunning resilience from Saprissa to see Las Águilas‘ hold on this quarterfinal unlocked. And that seems simply too unlikely. Pencil in América for a place in the semifinal, and let the remaining teams in CCL note that the tournament’s favorite is in disconcertingly good form.
Second Leg: March 4 @ América; 9:00 pm (Chicago time)
ALAJUELENSE 5-2 DC UNITED
And that sound is the Costa Rica’s Champions League hype train starting up again.
Alajuelense has been a good team in CCL for the past couple of seasons. Last year, it made the semifinals, and beat America home and away in the group stage. This year, it saw off Cruz Azul (the 2013-14 Concachampions, lest we forget) in the group stage. La Liga has proven itself an opponent to be taken seriously at the regional level.
What it has not been in CCL, however, is a prolific scoring team: six goals in eight games in last year’s tournament; four goals in this year’s group stage. So while this home win over DC United is no great shock, the scale of it is certainly a surprise.
To be fair to Los Manudos, each new season brings a slightly different and a slightly different character to any club. Alajuelense is in shaky form in its domestic league (three straight games without a win coming into this match) but it is also a more free-scoring, defensively haphazard unit than it was even a few months ago: contrast 16 goals scored and 11 conceded in 10 matches of this year’s Torneo de Verano with 38 scored and 15 conceded in 22 games of the 2014 Torneo de Invierno.
It would appear La Liga is no longer blessed with one of the more reliable defensive units in the region, and it sought to compensate for this by coming out fast against DC United, to keep the visitors pinned back and get the scoreboard moving along early.
It didn’t quite go to plan – DC weathered the early storm – but in the 16th minute, Alajuelense got the breakthrough. Armando Alonso chased a ball over the top into the box and got clipped by Andrew Dykstra for his trouble. The ‘keeper was merely yellow-carded for his antics because the collision took place at the edge of the penalty area, there was no obvious goal scoring opportunity and Dykstra wasn’t the last man – Steven Birnbaum was tracking back. Still, it was a situation that would have caused some refs to reach for the back pocket. DC United was fortunate to find García Orozco in a lenient mood (the referee let a lot of contact go without intervention for most of the match).
The penalty put DC down a goal, but at least it wasn’t down a man. Not that having the full complement of players helped a great deal. In the 22nd minute, another ball over the top caught DC’s defense entirely flat-footed, and Dykstra had little option but to try to close the angle without risking another yellow card. José Ortiz showed good composure in the one-on-one: 2-0 to the home team.
Alajuelense’s third was scored by Venegas, Dykstra fumbled a cross and coughed up the ball for a tap-in. Los Manudos had to wait a while to add to the scoring, and Ortiz’s second – La Liga‘s fourth of the game – was unexpected. In the 54th minute, a defensive error gave Alajuelense possession in the final third and Ortiz surged forward, but seemed to take the wrong option, cutting in toward the center of the field instead of laying the ball off, but he looked up and laced the ball past Dykstra’s near post to settled any questions over his decision-making.
The fifth was also a function of dreadful DC defending: a lackadaisical clearance allowed Leonel Peralta to one touch a pass back in to the box just as the defense was stepping up and trying to recover its shape. Jonathan McDonald had time and space to take a touch and pick his spot from 10 yards out.
It was a troubling performance from DC United because it is hard to explain away the defensive lapses with the usual excuses. The team needs time to find its chemistry? Every player in the starting lineup was part of DC’s squad last year, and Ben Olsen didn’t adjust his back four at all during the match. The players are still in preseason mode and short of full fitness? Alajuelense did most of its damage when both teams were fresh, scoring three times in the opening 30 minutes.
And at the same time, there is cause for DC to be optimistic about its chances. The MLS side scored a couple of goals, which is helpful for a start. And those goals exposed the fact that Alajuelense’s defense is vulnerable. In the 25th minute, La Liga simply watched as DC went route one to great effect: punt up the field from Dykstra, flick-on from Chris Pontius, Fabian Espindola chased and planted a header past ‘keeper Dexter Lewis.
And DC’s 90th minute goal was basically a set piece: Espindola got the ball back quickly after his dead-ball delivery was cleared, put a second cross into the box before Alajuelense had much time to push the defensive line forward, and Birnbaum headed home.
With home advantage and the sense of urgency that comes when you have to win a game by three goals, DC could do some damage to Los Manudos in the second leg. Certainly, one doesn’t expect these two fragile defenses to combine for 0-0.
This result, however, clearly favors Alajuelense. A three-goal advantage is about as much as they might have hoped for after the first leg. And the squad still contains a few veterans of the club’s recent CCL highlights: three of the team that started this match started La Liga‘s famous victory over América in Azteca in 2013; six of the starting lineup against DC started in the 1-1 draw at Estadio Azul last August. A club that can figure out how to get results on the road in Mexico will be expected to have a solid plan for handling a trip to DC.
As for the last remaining American team in this year’s CCL, the competition isn’t over yet. But the disparity between this disjointed performance and Montreal Impact’s impressive showing against Pachuca does call into question DC United’s preparation for its opening game of CCL.
Frank Klopas and L’Impact spent a couple of weeks in Mexico preparing to play Pachuca, and the preparation seemed to pay off: a 2-2 result felt, if anything, underwhelming given Montreal’s early success in the match. L’Impact was terrible in 2014, and justifiably brought in a lot of fresh blood to the squad over the off-season. But the new faces seemed to understand how to combine and work as a unit, particularly defensively.
DC United’s preparations looked a lot like standard fare for a team jogging into the early stages of the MLS regular season: essentially warm-weather training in sunnier parts of America, and friendlies played largely against other teams in preseason mode. One of the better teams in MLS throughout the 2014 season looked a shambles at times against Alajuelense, whatever chemistry had been developed over the course of last year apparently lost to the off-season and clearly not regained in time for this game.
There is still time for Olsen and his team to dig out of the hole they are in, just as Montreal’s impressive result in Mexico doesn’t guarantee them an easy ride in the second leg. But of the two MLS teams still in CCL, the one that made special accommodation for the specific circumstances of its first competitive match of the season is the one looking most likely to advance.
There is lesson in there somewhere for next year’s crop of MLS contenders in CCL. A lesson that hopefully isn’t lost if Olsen and DC United triumph over Alajuelense and their own inadequate preparation to make it to the semifinals.
Second Leg: March 4 @ DC; 7:00 pm (Chicago time)
Follow @OTFSoccer for updates on our CCL coverage
CONCACAF editor Austin Fido chats CCL @canetop.