As the CONCACAF Champions League group stage entered its last week, all three MLS representatives were still with a chance of qualification to the knockout round of the competition. Results through Wednesday night have cleared up the fates of the Columbus Crew and the Houston Dynamo, while DC United must sweat out the last Group B game taking place tonight.
Let’s start with what we do know – Columbus will enter the quarterfinals after their 1-1 draw away to the Puerto Rico Islanders while Houston is eliminated after their 3-2 loss away to Metapán of El Salvador. Because DC United drew 1-1 with Toluca on Tuesday, they must await the result of tonight’s match between CD Marathón and San Juan Jabloteh in Trinidad. A loss or a draw from Marathón puts DC into the quarterfinals.
The Columbus Crew entered Week #6 of the CCL knowing they controlled their own destiny. Needing at least a draw to secure second place in Group C, the Crew played the first half with little intensity, and gave up a relatively soft goal to the home side Islanders to trail 1-0 at halftime. Not wanting to rely on other results within the Group, Columbus came out strong in the second half, nearly tying the score in the first couple minutes off efforts from Brian Carroll and halftime substitute Adam Moffat. Eventually it was Emilio Renteria who leveled the score in the 74th minute. Playing out the remainder of the game with the score in their favor, the Crew can now look forward to the knockout stages of the competition in early 2010.
The Houston Dynamo received good news ahead of their match with Group A bottom dwellers Isidro Metapán when, earlier in the evening, group winners Pachuca dispatched Arabe Unido of Panama 2-0. Trailing the Panamanians by three points in the race for the second qualification slot, but holding the head-to-head tiebreaker, Houston needed a win in their match to advance in the competition. While the Dynamo have not had much success historically on the road in the CCL, playing against a team that had yet to score in the competition seemed to present an easy task. Instead, Dom Kinnear’s squad came out with little energy, and poor communication among the defensive line lead to two quick goals from the El Salvadorans. The Dynamo recovered to level the score before halftime, with the second goal being worthy of another luck, as goalkeeper Tally Hall punted a ball into the opponent’s penalty area that bounced beyond a hapless Metapán ‘keeper into the net. The home side claimed interference on the play through a tough challenge from Brian Ching on the ‘keeper, but the referee let the goal stand. With their early mistakes now atoned for, the Dynamo needed only a winning second half performance to secure their passage to the CCL knockout round for the second straight year. Instead, a bevy of missed opportunities, and a long range free kick goal from the home side, saw Houston crash out with a 3-2 loss and an end to their Champions League run.
DC United was also in control of their CCL fate as they flew to Mexico to take on the group leaders Toluca. Never has a team from MLS beaten a Mexican squad south of the border, but DC would come very close. Taking a 1-0 lead in the first half off a spectacular goal from Chris Pontius, the Black-and-Red looked poised to knock off a Toluca team that couldn’t break through against goalkeeper Steve Cronin. DC held on until the 62nd minute, when a penalty kick was awarded after a soft challenge from Lawson Vaughn in the area, and second half substitute Israel Lopez converted the equalizer. Only a victory would guarantee DC second place in Group B, but they squandered what few chances they could create over the final third of the match and had to settle for the 1-1 draw. Now, they await the match result from tonight to see whether they’ll continue to play in the CCL.
Congratulations to the Columbus Crew for successfully advancing in the competition. There is only frustration for the Houston Dynamo for dropping a game to a team that couldn’t buy a goal in their first five group stage matches. Supporters of DC United, justifiably proud of their teams result in Mexico, will be cheering on Jabloteh tonight, willing the Trinidad and Tobago squad on to at least a draw. Otherwise, MLS will send only one team through to the quarterfinals of the CCL – truly a disappointment for the league and its fans.
UPDATE: In Thursday night’s game in Trinidad, Marathon defeated San Juan Jabloteh 4-2 to secure passage to the quarterfinals ahead of DC United. Behind a second half hat-trick from Jerry Palacios, the Honduran squad easily handled the winless hosts. The result leaves the Columbus Crew as the only MLS representative left in the competition. The elimination of both Houston and DC from the CCL reflects poorly on the league in our region. However, until participating clubs are pressed by their supporters to succeed outside of MLS, don’t expect results like this year and last year (only the Houston Dynamo advanced) to change.