The CONCACAF Champions League resumes Tuesday with three quarterfinals matchups involving sides from American based leagues.
Houston vs Atlante
The Dynamo have done well to get this far and boast a 4-0 win over Atlante in the opening group match of last season’s Superliga. But without Dwayne DeRosario, arguably the best player in the 13 year history of MLS, the Dynamo are rebuilding and regrouping. Brian Ching remains one of the deadliest strikers in the American game almost simply because nobody is going to outwork him. Stuart Holden should slide into the playmakers role vacated by DeRo, with Brad Davis on the left and Brian Mullen or Cory Ashe on the right side.
Forty one year old Pat Onstad continues to be solid for Houston between the pipes but my concern is the Dynamo’s back line. Bobby Boswell was stellar last season, but the rest of the unit was not. This ultimately will be Houston’s undoing in this quarterfinal tie.
Houston is a bit unlucky. I think the Dynamo gets by either Santos or Marathon the sides facing USL teams at this stage. But Atlante has been playing too well this season in Mexico and despite a draw with San Luis this weekend, the Yucatan based side looks ready to make a strong run at winning this competition.
One advantage though for Houston is that the away leg in Cancun is not at altitude, something MLS sides have struggled with in trips to Mexico. But the Dynamo overcame that by getting the first ever result for an MLS side in a non friendly match on Mexican soil in the group stage against Cruz Azul.
Luis Gabriel Rey is in his second Atlante stint and is doing a fantastic job helping the clubs attack. Argentine Gabriel Pereyra is an outstanding play maker and goal scorer. Giancarlo Gregorio Maldonado, the Venezuelan superstar has been so good for Atlante that he attracted interest in the January window from English Premier League clubs.
Federico Vilar is one of the best goalkeepers in the FMF and beating him, even at home will be tough for the Dynamo. But if you want a clear understanding of why Mexico’s National Team under Sven Goran Eriksson is struggling look no further than the mere fact that I have just named four superstar players on one of Mexico’s top clubs and they are all foreigners. Beyond Guadalajara and Cruz Azul this seems to be a growing trend in the league. Eriksson dealt with his same situation as England Manager and his results there were not up to the standards expected, but he has already lost more World Cup qualifiers as Mexico manager than he did in two qualifying cycles with England.
Atlante wins this tie and perhaps the entire competition if they remain healthy.
The Pick: Atlante
Montreal vs Santos Laguna
The Impact have sold in excess of 50,000 tickets for the home leg of this quarterfinal tie which is played Wednesday. This will likely be the largest crowd to see a football match in Montreal since the 1981 NASL playoffs when the Montreal Manic were defeated by the eventual Soccer Bowl champion Chicago Sting.
The Impact build from the back and feature Matt Jordan onetime Dallas Burn goalkeeper whose MLS success saw him play a few seasons in Europe. Montreal only conceded five goals in six group matches. Offensively Joey Gjertsen is an under appreciated play maker. He doesn’t score the number of goals he did with Vancouver a few years back but fills space often behind the strikers and helps stimulate Montreal’s counter attack.
Peter Byers returns to the Impact after a short training camp stint with the San Jose Earthquakes and that is good news because he was a integral part of getting the Impact this far in the competition. Panamanian forward Roberto Brown makes Fernando Clavijo’s personnel decisions look poor almost every time he steps on the pitch for Montreal where he has been stellar after being waived by the Rapids in 2007.
Santos Laguna’s Clausura campaign has begun in rocky fashion. The defending Clausura champions dropped three of their first five matches with two draws to fall to the foot of the Group A table. But now Santos is steadying the ship, most recently with a 2-0 win over Monterrey.
Fernando Arce and Mathias Vuoso are the key players to watch for Santos up front. Oswaldo Sanchez is always tough as a net minder, but the question is will Santos lose their temper and cool much as they did in the group stage against Puerto Rico when things began to go wrong on the road?
The Pick: Montreal
Puerto Rico vs Marathon
The Islanders are the story of the Champions League thus far. Qualifying the hard way through the Caribbean club championship and then having to defeat a strong Costa Rican side in the qualifying round, then scraping through the group stage despite fixture congestion which saw the Islanders play 17 games in 49 days, over five different time zones.
We’ve learned never to count the Islanders out but this is where it probably all ends. Showing poorly over the weekend in a friendly against DC United, Colin Clarke’s side is starting slow.
Bill Gaudette continues to be a solid keeper. Te acquisition of former DC United and Vancouver forward Nicholas Adderly should help the attack which at times struggled to find goals late in the Champions League group stage and in the USL playoffs. Jonny Steele of Northern Ireland the 2008 USL MVP and Peter Villegas, one time curiosity with the Metrostars and DC United anchor the midfield, while either Fabrice Noel or former Miami FC attacker Sean Fraser should compliment Adderly up front.
CD Marathon features an entirely Honduran team with one exception: the Honduran killer of last week’s qualifiers, Andy Furtado scorer of two Costa Rican goals at Saprissa. Astor Henriquez anchors a sold back line and the side features many goal scoring threats.
For sentimental reasons, this is the tie I am most concerned about. A bandwagon affect has taken place within American soccer circles regarding the Islanders. I’ve spoken to a number of people whose teams are not participating in this tournament who want to see MLS’ Dynamo do well but are openly cheering for the Islanders. Many of these fans have ignored the Impact entirely.
America loves Cinderellas and underdogs and the Islanders are the ultimate underdog. But this is likely where the ride ends.
The Pick: Marathon