Let’s take a quick break from the US National Team mania that’s sweeping America (not really but those of us that retreat to our bubble of footy fans would think the whole nation is engrossed by the Confederations Cup and Jermaine Jones defection from Germany to the US) and look ahead to the CONCACAF Champions League. The draw for the second annual event was held this past week and MLS teams fared decently, while last year’s semifinalist Puerto Rico of USL-1 will either have to defeat Toronto FC or Vancouver to advance into the group stages this year.
Here is the draw:
Arabe Unido-San Francisco (PAN) vs. San Juan Jabloteh (TRI)
Pachuca (MEX) vs. Comunicaciones-Jalapa (GUA)
New York Red Bulls (USA) vs. W Connection (TRI)
Olimpia (HON) vs. Arabe Unido/Chorrillo (PAN)
Cruz Azul (MEX) vs. Herediano (CRC)
D.C. United (USA) vs. Chalatenango (SLV)
Liberia (CRC) vs. Real Espana (HON)
Vancouver Whitecaps/Toronto FC (CAN) vs. Puerto Rico Islanders (PUR)
Houston Dynamo (USA)
Pachuca (MEX)-Guatemala No. 2 (Comunicaciones or Jalapa) winner
D.C. United- (USA)-Chalatenango (SLV) winner
San Juan Jabloteh (TRI)-Panama No. 1 (Arabe Unido or San Francisco FC) winner
Columbus Crew (USA)
Cruz Azul (MEX)-Herediano (CRC) winner
Canada No. 1 (Toronto FC or Vancouver Whitecaps)-Puerto Rico Islanders (PUR) winner
Pumas UNAM (MEX)
New York Red Bulls (USA)-W Connection (TRI) winner
Liberia (CRC)-Real Espana (HON) winner
MLS teams in particular were given favorable draws this time around. DC United should be a clear favorite against Chalatenango, but the Salvadorian side will have plenty of support present at the DCU home leg. DC United unlike other MLS sides have actually shown a decent ability to play football in Central America historically and should advance.
New York should have little trouble with Trinidadian side W-Connection if they truly take the tournament seriously unlike New England who a year ago was embarrassed by traditional CONCACAF doormat Joe Public over two legs.
The way the Puerto Rico Islanders have performed over the past two months since being eliminated from the CONCACAF Champions League in a PK shootout against Cruz Azul, nothing should be expected from them this go around. The Islanders have until last night’s win over Austin looked poorly organized and tired from not having much of an offseason. Either Vancouver or Toronto FC should be considered overwhelming favorites to advance to the group stage.
Part of the issue with the Islanders is believe it or not excessive depth. Colin Clarke has the deepest team in either MLS or USL-1 (note I said the deepest not the best) with several players consistently being shuffled in and out of the lineup. While this team was clearly built to play in multiple competitions at once the team seems to lack continuity from game to game that is necessary at this level. Should the Islanders get their act together however, they will be formidable much like last year.
At the group stage Houston should fare well, finishing second behind Pachuca is a realistic goal. DC United should also fare well in Group B. Marathon did well in the last Champions League but were defeated both home and way by Puerto Rico in the Quarterfinals.
The USL-1 side has given a blueprint for MLS teams to understand how to play tactically in Central America. Colin Clarke’s reliance on counter attacking and proper spacing at the back allowed the Islanders to advance further than any MLS team. Now MLS managers must take the lessons taught by Clarke and apply them to their sides which at least theoretically should be superior in talent to what Clarke had to work with.
Group C is the group of death and given Columbus’ lack of experience in competitions of this nature it will be a detriment but no player in COMNEBOL history perhaps is more accomplished in the Libertadoras than Guille Barros Schelotto.
Should Vancouver under experienced international manager Teitur Thordarson, advance they would stand a fair chance of advancing out of the Group of Death. The Whitecaps have a balanced squad capable of beating anyone in the region on the right night. Even though the Whitecaps are moving to MLS in 2011 they can be counted on to fly the USL-1 flag high this year, assuming they make the tournament. (TFC needs four goals against Montreal this week in the final Canadian Cup match)
If TFC makes the event they too will likely defeat last year’s darlings the Puerto Rico Islanders but face a tougher time in the group of death than Vancouver. Again, the Islanders on current form (not just results but the way they are playing) aren’t a threat but if Clarke’s men get it figured out before the first round they will be dangerous much like last year.
In the final group which is clearly the weakest, the New York Red Bulls have a decent chance of advancing despite their awful MLS form.
The groups set up nicely for MLS this season. Should the league’s teams fall flat on their faces like last year’s competition the quality of MLS will have to be seriously questioned. Similarly, their will be no repeat performances from USL in this year’s competition. CONCACAF has ensured that by pitting the two potential USL qualifiers against each other in the play in round