With the draw for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals now set, Goal.com’s Kyle McCarthy evaluates the pairings and thinks the the draw may give a USL team a shot to get through to the semifinals.
CONCACAF held the draw for the Champions League knockout stages on Wednesday. Though it’s a bit early to dig deeply into the gory details with the first leg set for late February, today’s Friday Five gives a first impression on the draw.
For those MLS and USL fans, the pairings make for ugly reading. It only takes one look to show that the odds are stacked against Houston and Montreal, but Puerto Rico drew the only non-Mexican group winner and may just have a shot to conjure up a miracle.
No matter how these quarterfinals shake out, the winner will almost certainly hail from Mexico. Considering a Mexican club has won each of the last three competitions – and two Mexican clubs squared off for the title in two of those instances – that isn’t much of a surprise.
1. Houston Dynamo (USA) v. Atlante (Mexico)
MLS teams mired in pre-season haven’t proven particularly competitive when asked to play matches against in-season Mexican teams. Playing against Atlante, winners of Group 1 in the 2008 Apertura before falling to Cruz Azul in the semifinals, won’t make things any easier. Atlante is a scrappy, combative team led by strikers Giancarlo Maldonado and Christian Bermudez. Houston will need to ensure Bobby Boswell returns and another striker is signed in order to have a realistic chance of advancing. Even then, it looks like an uphill climb with the second leg scheduled for Cancun.
2. Montreal Impact (Canada) v. Santos Laguna (Mexico)
Fresh from withdrawing its bid for a MLS side, Montreal will face an even stiffer challenge against Santos Laguna. Santos finished second in Group 1 during the 2008 Apertura and lost in the semifinals to Toluca even with Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s help. The former Mexican international likely won’t be around to help out Santos in the quarterfinals, but there’s plenty in reserve with Mexican international Vicente Vuoso and the currently injured Christian Benitez leading the line. Certainly more than enough to get past an out-of-season Impact side.
3. Puerto Rico Islanders (Puerto Rico) v. Marathon (Honduras)
The best news for the Islanders is the apparent return of head coach Colin Clarke after he didn’t get a sniff of the limited MLS openings available. Expect most of the key players to return as well, even if MLS teams continue to hover around dynamic midfielder Jonny Steele. It likely won’t be enough to overtake the Honduran group winners. Clarke couldn’t have asked for a better draw, but asking his defenders to thwart Saul Martinez and Milton Nunez might prove too much.
4. UNAM Pumas (Mexico) v. Cruz Azul (Mexico)
The top two teams in Group 2 of the 2008 Apertura meet for a berth in the semifinals. Pumas may have finished top of the group, but second-placed Cruz Azul has scraped two wins and a draw out of their last three meetings. The last meeting, a 3-1 away victory, knocked Pumas out of the playoffs. Whether those meetings will reflect on the contests in late February and early March remains an open question. Pumas will have to stop the potent Paraguayan striker Pablo Zeballos (8 goals in the Apertura) if it wants to advance. Given Cruz Azul’s current form – even with the damaging 2-0 home loss to Toluca in the playoff final last night – it’s tough to go against them here.
5. How does the draw set up from here?
Cruz Azul are the favorites to take the title with a victory over Pumas. A relatively forgiving semifinal tilt with the winner of the Puerto Rico-Marathon beckons. That’s a decidedly better draw than playing either Santos or the Houston-Atlante winner. One reward for the lucky team who makes it out of the Santos-Houston-Atlante side of the draw: they will play the second leg of the final at home.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and blogs frequently during the week for Goal.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.