[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] Real Salt Lake gave MLS a significant dose of respect within the Concacaf club hierarchy by reaching the Champions League final last April, in which it lost, 3-2, on aggregate to Mexican club Monterrey. With five teams in the group phase of the 2011-12 edition that kicks off Tuesday, and the glamorous Galaxy and defending league champion Colorado among the representatives, MLS can up its presence a notch by showing its depth extends beyond RSL, which didn’t qualify this time around.
Overall points leader Los Angeles and defending league champion Colorado highlight the five MLS entries in the Concacaf Champions League group phase.
GROUP A. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena has cited his pending opponents Alajauense (Costa Rica), Motagua (Honduras), and Morelia (Mexico) as the “group of death.” It is a tough group, certainly, with the Galaxy and Morelia generally regarded as the favorites.
Playing for Motagua are Guillermo “Pando” Ramirez, a Galaxy player when it last won the title in 2005, former MLS MVP Amado Guevara, and Ivan Guerrero (played for Chicago, D.C. United, San Jose, Colorado). The Galaxy also face the pressure of leading the overall MLS standings; it would stain the league’s image for its top team not to advance.
GROUP B. The Rapids open against Isidro Metapan of El Salvador, which is playing in its fourth consecutive edition of the competition. Colorado is treading new ground, and given its questionable depth, may be hard-pressed to emerge from a group that also included Santos Laguna of Mexico and Real Espana of Honduras. In its two CCL appearances, Santos has reached the quarterfinals twice and the semifinals once.
Colorado will rely on its speedy set of attackers – Omar Cummings, Sanna Nyassi, Macoumba Kandji – and its central midfield pairing of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni. If it can make the Central Americans expend a lot of energy in the mile-high altitude of its home matches, and keeps things tight defensively, Colorado can get through.
GROUP C. FC Dallas and Toronto FC (which qualified as Canadian champion and beat Real Esteli of Nicaragua in a playoff) face Tauro FC (Panama) and Mexican giant UNAM (Pumas), with the Mexicans expected to advance along with FCD.
TFC opens against Tauro Thursday after FCD gets underway Wednesday in Mexico City. This is FCD’s first CCL venture, but it did look impressive while dispatching Alianza FC (El Salvador) with 1-0 victories home and away in the preliminary round.
The darkhorse in this group is TFC, which has woken up somewhat with the arrival of DPs Danny Koevermans and Torsten Frings, and is riding the rapid ascension of young Ecuadoran Joao Plata. Since it has nothing at stake in MLS unless it can win most of its remaining league games, the CCL is its chance to give something tangible to a fan base chafing at five playoff failures in as many MLS seasons.
GROUP D. The Sounders stumbled out of the group phase in the 2010-11 tournament with just one victory in six group matches. They are grouped with Herediano (Costa Rica), defending champion Monterrey, and Comunicaciones (Guatemala), against which they open Tuesday at CenturyLink Field.
In the past month or so Mauro Rosales has blossomed as an attacking force, which could open up space for Fredy Montero to produce consistently. Holding mid Osvaldo Alonso, whose dominating displays have evoked memories of his remarkable 2009 season, is an especially critical element against skillful, clever opponents and in hostile away environments. Also, Seattle didn’t take advantage of its artificial-turf surface last time; that failure cannot be repeated.