The quarterfinal stage of the CONCACAF Champions League begins this Tuesday following a winter break after the conclusion of the group stages. Along with the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, the CONCACAF Champions League is in the knockout stage, and will vie with those two tournaments, along with the Copa Libertadores, for attention this week. One result is certain — one MLS team, two Mexican teams and one fabled Central American power will form the quartet that advances into the CONCACAF CL semifinals. The winner of the CONCACAF CL will play in the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup tournament held in December.
The draws for the quarterfinals include MLS clubs Real Salt Lake and the Columbus Crew beginning the first leg of their two-game series on Tuesday evening, while Mexican Primera division teams Cruz Azul and Santos Laguna tangle later that evening. On Wednesday evening, Mexican teams Toluca and CF Monterrey do battle, while in the other quarterfinal match famed Central American clubs CD Saprissa of Costa Rica and CD Olimpia of Honduras face off Thursday evening. The second leg matches of the quarterfinals will take place March 1 -3.
Columbus Crew – Real Salt Lake
Tuesday evening at 8:00 pm ET the Crew will host RSL, with the match televised on FSC and Galavision. The matchup features the 2008 MLS Cup winners versus the 2009 MLS Cup champions. And even though both teams are a month away from their MLS regular season kickoffs, both will be gunning to advance to the semifinals at their rival’s expense. And the Columbus -RSL matchup is beginning to build up heat, going back to an early 2010 game between the two in which Crew goalkeeper Will Hesmer reminded fans that RSL were a sub .500 club in 2009 despite winning the MLS Cup, and that the Crew were the class of the league. His remarks supposedly became bulletin-board material in the RSL locker room.
Is there a real rivalry between the two clubs? According to RSL coach Jason Kreis, “Maybe a little bit, yeah. You go back to not last year, but the year before in the playoffs. We faced each other, and we’ve had some heated exchanges in matches, both there and in Salt Lake.” RSL midfielder Will Johnson downplays it somewhat, claiming that “maybe a budding rivalry is the right description.”
Nonetheless, both Kreis and Crew head coach Robert Warzycha will have plenty of firepower on hand for Tuesday’s match. The Crew have added the prolific goal-scorer, Jamaican veteran Jeff Cunningham, to their squad, along with young talents Dilly Duka, Tom Heinemann, Ben Sippola, Bernardo Anor, Cole Grossman, Justin Meram and defender Kory Veeder. They join a core nucleus of veterans such as Hesmer, Robbie Rogers, Eddie Gaven and Chad Marshall, players who have been the foundation of the Crew’s recent success.
Kreis can call on forward Alvaro Saborio for goal-scoring punch, while veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando is tried and true between the posts. Team captain Kyle Beckerman leads a host of talented RSL veterans including Javier Morales, Andy Williams, Jamison Olave, Robbie Russell, Ned Grabavoy and Nat Borchers while youngsters Luis Gil, Cody Arnoux, Collen Warner, Chris Shuler and Paulo Araujo Jr will push the veterans for playing time. Kreis has tabbed Araujo Jr as a possible starter Tuesday upfront with Saborio.
Both teams have ended their preseason Arizona training camps, with the Crew coming out on the short end of a 4-2 match with the Houston Dynamo last Thursday while RSL downed Chivas USA 2-0 last Tuesday.
Cruz Azul – Santos Laguna
At 10:00 pm ET Tuesday, Cruz Azul will host Santos Laguna, with television coverage available on the Telefutura network. Cruz Azul is a Mexico City-based club that originated in 1927. They have won eight Mexican Primera Division titles along with five CONCACAF club championships, tied for most with fellow Mexico City team Club America.
Cruz Azul currently are second to Pumas in Group 3 of the Clausura tournament with four wins and a draw in seven matches. Los Cementeros are coming off a 2-1 win Saturday over Atlas after being shut out the week before by the upstart Tigres club. Cruz Azul are led by Argentinian Emmanuel Villa, with four goals, and longtime Mexican international Gerardo Torrado, while goalkeeper Jesus Corona has two clean sheets in seven Clausura matches.
Cruz Azul Coach Enrique Meza is focused on the matchup with Santos Laguna. “We’re already thinking about the game against Santos,” he said. “We want to take advantage of our home game in this round. It will be hard because the opponent has good quality players, but we also…(hope) to play very well and seek a good result that allows us to then go to Torreon for a trip to the semifinals.”
Santos Laguna are a team in distress. On Sunday, Coach Ruben Omar Romano and his staff were dismissed after Romano was photographed making unflattering gestures pointed at Santos Laguna supporters following the club’s 2-0 home loss to Queretaro. It’s an unfortunate situation, as Romano had guided Los Guererros to the final of the 2010 Apertura championship, losing to Monterrey. Santos Laguna, founded in 1982, will be led by Eduardo Rergis until a permanent replacement for Romano can be found.
Santos Laguna have three wins and a draw in their seven Clausura matches, although fans were quite dissatisfied with the club’s two losses in their last three league matches. The club is led in scoring by Darwin Quintero and former Birmingham City forward Christian Benitez with two goals each. They are captained by veteran Mexican international goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez. Santos Laguna finished first in Group B of the CONCACAF Champions League group stage to make the quarterfinals.
Toluca – Monterrey
On Wednesday at 8:00 pm ET two more Mexican clubs will clash, as Toluca host Monterrey, with coverage on Telefutura. Toluca, founded in 1917, have a proud history, having won ten Primera Division titles, tied with Club America behind Chivas’ eleven championships. A strong defensive club, Toluca have shut out opponents five times in their seven Clausura matches, although they surrendered three goals to Necaxa in Sunday’s 3-2 loss. Despite topping Group 2, their home form hasn’t been particularly strong as they’ve only managed a win and a draw in four home matches.
Monterrey come into Wednesday’s match following a 0-0 draw with north Mexican rivals Tigres on Saturday. Los Rayados are currently tied for the second spot in Group 1 of the Primera Division standings behind Tigres. They are led by dynamic Chilean striker Humberto Suazo with five goals. Monterrey won the 2009 and 2010 Mexican Apertura titles.
Saprissa – Olimpia
The final match of the first leg of the CONCACAF CL quarterfinals will take place Thursday evening at 8:00 pm ET in San Jose, Costa Rica. The game will be televised on Galavision from the hostile environs of Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, as iconic Honduran club CD Olimpia will try to secure a win against Costa Rican giants Deportivo Saprissa. Fans of the USMNT will recall the 3-1 drubbing the Americans took from the Costa Rican national team at Estadio Saprissa in World Cup qualifying in June, 2009, and remember what a difficult place it is to gain a result.
Saprissa currently rank 2nd in Group A of the Primera Division de Costa Rican, two points behind leaders Limonense. Saprissa won their match with Puntarenas Sunday 2-0, courtesy of two goals by Armando Alonso. Saprissa is the only non-Mexican club to represent CONCACAF in the FIFA Club World Cup, which they did in 2005.
CD Olimpia has a proud history too. Winner of 23 Honduran Liga Nacional championships, Olimpia has also won two CONCACAF Cup titles. Founded in 1912, Olimpia are currently fourth in the table following their 1-1 draw with Marathon Sunday in league play.