[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE]He isn't saying he prefers SuperLiga to the Concacaf Champions' League, but Houston coach Dominic Kinnear can't help but get excited about playing Mexican teams in real competition. Five months after playing Atlante in the SuperLiga, Houston was matched up with the Mexican club for the CCL quarterfinals to be played next year. Houston hosts the first leg (Feb. 24-26) and faces Atlante in Cancun a week or so later.
Atlante is one of four Mexican teams that advanced to the quarters. MLS teams didn't fare so well; Chivas USA and New England were eliminated in the preliminary phase, and D.C. United didn't advance out of group play. USL-1 sent two teams to the knockout stage.
The other quarterfinal pairings are: Marathon (Honduras) vs. Puerto Rico (Caribbean/USL); Santos (Mexico) vs. Montreal (Canada/USL); and an all-Mexican matchup of Cruz Azul vs. UNAM Pumas.
Houston blasted Atlante, 4-0, when the teams last met July 12, with Atlante scraping off rust in its preseason and Houston in midseason form. "We caught Atlante on a hot day for us and a bad day for them," Kinnear says of the rout that featured a pair of goals by Stuart Holden.
"For Houston, in a span of two years, this fan base has seen more competitive and meaningful international competition than some of the teams in MLS have seen in their history."
Over the past two seasons in various competitions, Houston has played many Mexican opponents. It lost to Pachuca, 5-4, in a memorable Concacaf Champions Cup semifinal in early 2007 and later that year in the SuperLiga beat Club America, tied Morelia, and lost a thrilling semifinal on penalty kicks (after a 2-2 tie) against Pachuca, again.
This past season, in addition to beating Atlante, it lost to Guadalajara, 1-0, in the 2008 SuperLiga group phase, then beat Pachuca, 2-0, in the semifinals. It tied UNAM, 4-4, in Mexico City, and lost the home leg, 3-1, in the Concacaf Champions' League round of 16. In eight home games against Mexican teams in 2007 and 2008, it averaged 16,347 fans per game, with many of the games played midweek.
"If we got to play Pachuca every year, I would sign up for that, because it brings out the best in our players and I love the competition. I love the way they play," says Kinnear. "Chivas [Guadalajara] was a good team, Pumas was a good team.
"MLS fans have been starved for meaningful games against the Mexican teams. Here it is. I don't think the MLS teams are disappointed and I think the fans have enjoyed it. All around the games have been good."
Houston won't play in the SuperLiga next year. It has qualified for the 2009-10 CCL as one of four MLS representatives. The league and Concacaf have decreed, sensibly, that a disparate quartet of league teams will play in the 2009 SuperLiga to avoid teams doubling up in both competitions, as was the case in 2008.
Yet the Dynamo could meet Mexican opposition in the CCL semifinals if it can get past Atlante. This time around, Atlante will be well into its season, and Houston will be in the middle of preseason.
To advance this far it beat Salvadoran club Luis Angel Firpo on Nov. 26, in its 53rd competitive match - counting two games in the preseason Pan-Pacific Championship -- of the year.
"I don't think that just happens," says Kinnear, of season in which Houston lost only 12 games, including two on penalty kicks, in all competitions but fell in the playoffs to New York. "What these guys have done this season, even though we're all disappointed with how the MLS playoffs stopped, I think what they've done this year is nothing short of remarkable, I really do."