|Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009 7:00 AM ET
| [CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] MLS had plentiful reasons to object when Concacaf announced it would expand its club championship to 24 teams, but getting knocked out by lesser opposition surely ranked low on the list. As the quarterfinals commence after a three-month gap since group play, only one MLS team, Houston, is among the final eight. Four Mexican teams make up half of the quarterfinalists, and two others hail from the USL. Ticket sales are going so briskly that Montreal Impact officials hope to pack the Olympic Stadium with a record crowd of 50,000 fans for the visit of Santos Laguna Wednesday
The Dynamo plays Atlante; Mexico City and league rivals Cruz Azul and UNAM meet on the international stage; Montreal carries the Canadian banner into a tough test against Santos Laguna; and the Puerto Rico Islanders can continue their Cinderella run against Marathon of Honduras.
It nearly lost striker Peter Byers during the offseason but contract negotiations with San Jose of MLS broke down and he’s been re-signed to a new contract. Montreal has added Cuban attacker Edward Sebrango and also signed team MVP goalkeeper Matt Jordan to a new deal.
Though it hasn’t played a competitive match since last October, Montreal has been training since January and played five matches during an extensive tour of lower-division and semi-pro Italian clubs. It also meets a Santos team with only two wins in its seven league matches, yet which features Mexican international keeper Oswaldo Sanchez in goal and a potent strike force that includes Mattias Vuoso, Christian Benitez and Carlos Quintero.
DERBY TIME. Nearly three months ago, Cruz Azul knocked UNAM out of the Mexican league playoffs by beating Pumas, 3-1, on the road after only managing a goalless tie in the home leg at the Azul stadium, which is where they meet Wednesday in the first leg (TV: Fox Soccer Channel, 10 p.m. ET).
Cruz Azul went on to reach the 2008 Apertura final, which it lost on penalties to Toluca, 7-6, after the teams had tied, 2-2, in their two-leg series. That playoff run may have affected its form in Champions’ League group play; it scraped through in second place, nudging past Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica on goal difference.
In its seven league matches of the 2009 Clausura, Los Cementeros have had no trouble scoring goals; they have 14 goals in seven games after blasting Necaxa, 4-2, on the road last weekend. Striker Luis Angel Landin, acquired from Morelia after a loan deal with Houston fell through, scored twice against Necaxa and leads the team with four goals. Cruz Azul has, however, conceded 10 goals, a major factor in its record of two wins, two losses and three ties.
UNAM is also struggling, mired in a five-game winless streak after opening with a pair of wins. The teams will not meet in league play until April.
ISLAND WELCOME. Like the Impact, Puerto Rico has been out of action for quite a while, since Oct. 30 to be exact, but coach Colin Clarke has signed a new three-year contract and tested his team against three MLS teams in Florida friendlies two weeks ago.
Puerto Rico lost to Chicago, 1-0, tied the Red Bulls, 0-0, and finished up by beating reigning league champion Columbus, 2-0. The club has retained league MVP Jonathan Steele, top goalkeeper Bill Gaudette and best defender Cristian Arrieta.
Marathon has hit some hard times since winning the league title as well as its CCL group before Christmas, though by beating Motagua, 1-0, on Sunday retains first place in the league.
Puerto Rico hosts the first leg Thursday (TV: Fox Soccer Channel, 8 p.m. ET).