CONCACAF has made its draw for the Knockout Round (or the Championship Round as they used to call it) of the Champions League. I don’t like to make predictions immediately after a draw; it takes time to digest the matchups, and the composition of the teams could change between now and the match date. Nevertheless, there are a few items that deserve comment.
It appears that the lower half of the draw (Cruz Azul, UNAM, Marathón, Puerto Rico) is easier than the upper half (Houston, Santos, Atlante, Montreal). The road to the Champions League trophy goes through Mexico, and clubs in the lower half could face a maximum of two encounters with Mexican clubs. In the upper half of the draw, Houston and Montreal could play a maximum of three Mexican clubs. I believe it’s going to be very difficult for Houston and Montreal to get to the final under those circumstances; their defenses will be called upon to either protect a first-leg lead or keep the first-leg result from getting out of hand. The domestic leagues in which those clubs play don’t give them enough of that experience. In contrast, Marathón and to a lesser extent Puerto Rico might be able to manage the game well enough to get a desired result in the two-leg format.
That segues nicely to my next point: Marathón is my dark house team. They’re fast, experienced, and very dangerous. They have shown that they are capable of taking points from the Mexican teams, and if they advance to the semifinal they would give UNAM or Cruz Azul all they can handle. Marathón is not a side to underestimate.
My third point is that first-leg results matter. And in the quarterfinal matchups they will matter even more because aside from UNAM (and maybe Puerto Rico), none of the sides hosting first-leg matches inspire confidence that they can obtain the required result on the road. I think those clubs require at least a two-goal margin to feel confident about their chances going into the return leg. It’s worth remembering that the away goals rule will be used for the first time in CONCACAF competition, and any goals allowed could put the team under pressure to score in the return leg, which will not be an easy task.
In the end, I think an all-Mexican final is likely but not certain. If it’s going to be thwarted, Marathón look likely to be the culprits. I’d like to think that Houston Dynamo would be able to pull it off (after all, they are one of the few MLS sides to return from Mexico without suffering a blowout defeat), but I doubt that Dominic Kinnear will know his best XI by late February and the off-season layoff will hurt them.
All that’s left to do now is wait until February.