The group phase of the CONCACAF Champions League is almost at an end and there can be little doubt the newly revamped tournament has lived up to all expectations so far. With plenty of exciting encounters in four evenly matched groups, there has been enough to satisfy even the most demanding of fans. The quarter-finals are due to take place at the beginning of next year, although the identity of the final two members of the last eight has yet to be revealed.
All to play for in Group 1
When the draw was made this looked to be the most competitive section of all, pitting together Mexican runners-up Cruz Azul, the imposing Marathon of Honduras, eternal Costa Rican champions Saprissa and Major League Soccer outfit DC United, all of them worthy representatives of the four toughest leagues in the region.
The Hondurans confounded the experts by becoming the first side to advance to the knockout phase. Recognised as formidable opponents at their San Pedro Sula fortress, no one gave them much hope of picking up points on the road. A valuable draw in Mexico and a win in Washington DC helped them qualify with a game in hand, however.
Saprissa await Marathon in that outstanding match on Wednesday, an encounter that will decide who joins the Hondurans in the last eight. Should the Tico Purple Monster win or draw, they will go through, while defeat will see Cruz Azul sneak into the last eight. Anyone expecting the Marathon men to go through the motions should think again, however, as they would like nothing better than to knock out Saprissa, one of their biggest rivals in the region.
University rules in Group 2
On paper Pumas UNAM and US champions Houston Dynamo were the favourites to clinch the two qualifications slots. Yet, the Mexican club’s decision to pack their side with youngsters and Houston’s inconsistent form made for a much more exciting group than expected, with the Americans still to book their place in the next round with one game remaining.
After an uncertain start, the university club showed why they are regarded as having the best youth set-up in Mexico. Playing some spectacular attacking football, the young Pumas secured first place in the section without losing a game, scoring 18 goals and letting in only seven. With Pumas in a league of their own, attention has turned to the battle for second between Dynamo and group revelations Luis Firpo of El Salvador.
The two sides meet in a decider in Houston on 26 November, and with the Salvadorans going into the game with a two-point advantage, a draw will be enough for them to qualify. For the Texans, however, only a win will do.
Before the tournament few people outside North America had heard of Montreal Impact. Low profile or not, the Canadians took time off from dominating the USL First Division to spring a major surprise in Group 3, claiming second place behind Mexican favourites Atlante.
Impact remained unbeaten at home and picked up unexpected wins away to Olimpia in Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago’s Joe Public. For their part the Iron Colts recovered from a shock home defeat to the Trinidadians to run out group winners.
A Puerto Rican fairy tale
The big surprise of the group phase was the emergence of Puerto Rico Islanders. Hailing from an island with little in the way of footballing tradition and playing its football in the United States second tier, the Caribbean outfit drove its loyal army of fans wild by qualifying for the group phase at the first attempt.
Once there, the Bayamon-based club needed a dramatic 2-2 draw against Tauro of Panama to take their quarter-final place, although the high-point of their campaign was undoubtedly the 3-1 home defeat of Mexican champions Santos Laguna on Matchday 2.
The Guerreros recovered from that setback to qualify in style with back-to-back 3-0 wins over the Islanders and the Panamanians.
2008 CONCACAF Champions League standings
Marathón * 10
Cruz Azul 10
Saprissa * 10
D.C. United 1
Firpo * 8
Dynamo * 6
San Francisco 2
Joe Public 3
Tauro F.C. 8
(*) Game in hand