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Quest for regional club crown kicks off
by Ridge Mahoney, July 28th, 2009 7:02AM



[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] With the Concacaf Gold Cup out of the way, the confederation's club competition resumes with three MLS teams and one USL entry involved in the Champions' League preliminary round that consists of eight home-and-home series. The action begins Tuesday when D.C. United hosts Salvadoran club Luis Angel Firpo -- which replaced Chalatenango when that team neglected to file its competition paperwork on time -- at RFK Stadium (8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel) in the first leg.

Firpo played in the group phase last year as an automatic qualifier and missed the knockout phase when it finished third; it placed second in cumulative records for the Clausura and Apertura domestic seasons to earn the invitation once Chalatenango defaulted.

A dismal season for the Red Bulls doesn't preclude them from playing in the Champions' League as an MLS Cup 2008 finalist, since Columbus won both the regular-season Supporters' Shield as well as the championship game. New York is drawn against W Connection (Trinidad & Tobago) and open play on Thursday (8 p.m., FSC) in Marabella, Trinidad.

Two other MLS teams - as well as four counterparts from Mexico - have been seeded into the group phase consisting of 16 teams. MLS Cup 2008 champion Columbus and Houston begin play next month.

As league champion, the Crew earned the U.S. No. 1 seed, with Houston as No. 2 with the second-best record, the Red Bulls third as losing MLS Cup finalist, and D.C. fourth as U.S. Open Cup winner.

Toronto FC is actually a fifth MLS entrant. The USA is allotted four places, and Canada one. TFC qualified by finishing atop a three-team group ahead of USL-1 rivals Montreal (which represented Canada in the 2008-09 edition of this competition) and Vancouver. One of last year's surprise stories, the USL-1 Puerto Rico Islanders, which reached the semifinals last time around and have qualified again as a Caribbean representative, play TFC in the first leg at BMO Field Wednesday (8 p.m., FSC).

The preliminary round will eliminate eight teams from the 24-team field. The eight survivors qualify for group play, in which each team plays three opponents twice, home and away, with the top two in each group advancing to the quarterfinals.

D.C. UNited slumped badly in the group phase last year. It managed just a single point from six matches by tying Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica, 2-2. It also failed to qualify for the MLS playoffs, but this season is third in the Eastern Conference with a 6-3-10 record and is just two points behind conference leader and defending league champion Columbus.

"I don't think we showed who D.C. United was, even in our league, last year," said D.C. defender Marc Burch to "This year we're coming in with a bit of an attitude and we want to show what D.C. United is all about."

United is one of only two MLS teams to win a previous incarnation of the regional club championship, the Champions' Cup, which was replaced by the CCL starting last year. United won the 1998 Champions' Cup and the Los Angeles Galaxy captured it in 2000.

Luis Angel Firpo has yet to start its league season, which Coach Agustin Castillo believes gives the MLS team a significant edge. "They have the advantage over us because they have been in competition in their local league," he said. "They are better prepared for this competition but we have confidence in the good work we are doing to get the most out of this."

Pachuca won the last two Champions' Cups in 2007 and 2008 and is entered in the group phase for the 2009-10 edition of the Champions' League, along with Mexican league rivals Toluca, Cruz Azul and UNAM.

The 2008-09 CCL concluded last May when Atlante defeated Cruz Azul, 2-0, in the two-leg finals. All four Mexican representatives advanced to the 2008-9 quarterfinals; Houston was the only MLS team to advance that far, and fell to Atlante at that phase.

All eight second legs will be played next week. Here is the complete first-leg schedule:

(All times Eastern)

Tuesday: D.C. United (USA) vs. Luis Angel Firpo (El Salvador), 8 p.m. (Fox Soccer Channel); Pachuca (Mexico) vs. Jalapa (Guatemala), 10 p.m.

Wednesday: Toronto FC (Canada) vs. Puerto Rico Islanders (Puerto Rico), 8 p.m (Fox Soccer Channel).; San Francisco (Panama) vs. San Juan Jabloteh (Trinidad & Tobago), 8 p.m.; Liberia (Costa Rica) vs. Real Espana (Honduras), 10 p.m.

Thursday: W Connection (Trinidad & Tobago) vs. New York (USA), 8 p.m. (Fox Soccer Channel); Herediano (Costa Rica) vs. Cruz Azul (Mexico), 10 p.m.; Olimpia (Honduras) vs. Arabe Unido (Panama), 10 p.m.



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