Photo by ISIPhotos.com
BY DAN KARELL
Three Major League Soccer teams remain in the hunt for the CONCACAF Champions League title, as the tournament resumes in the Championship Round starting tonight.
Among the final eight teams fighting for a place in next winter’s Club World Championship is the Seattle Sounders, Houston Dynamo, and Los Angeles Galaxy. All three teams made it out of the group stage unbeaten, with only the fourth American representative, Real Salt Lake, failing to move on to the quarterfinals.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber stated this past weekend his desire to see an MLS team crowned champion of CONCACAF, and he’s gone another step to help the clubs, giving them the weekend off so they can concentrate on the international competition. Unlike last year’s edition of the tournament, none of the MLS sides will play each other in the quarterfinal stage, leaving the league with as good a chance as any to make 2013 the first season in the Champions League era to have an American winner.
All three teams though will have to face Central American sides that are already well into their league seasons, putting more pressure on the American squads to be fit and ready to play in a shorter amount of time.
Here is a closer look at this week’s action:
#7 HOUSTON DYNAMO vs. #2 SANTOS LAGUNA
TV: Tuesday, 8pm, Fox Soccer Channel/Galavision
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Houston Dynamo earned a place in the quarterfinals with a win and a draw against both Olimpia of Honduras, and FAS of El Salvador in Group 3, while Santos Laguna steamrolled through Group 1, defeating Toronto FC from MLS and Aguilla of El Salvador, scoring 13 goals and conceding just one in the four matches.
THE MATCHUP: Houston got their domestic campaign off to a strong start, with a 2-0 win over D.C. United that saw Ricardo Clark, Oscar Boniek Garcia, and Brad Davis put out performances worthy of acclaim. That being said, there is little chance the midfield trio will start on Tuesday night, when the Dynamo host Mexican side Santos Laguna in the first leg.
Newly minted player-coach Brian Ching should play a larger role in this match for Houston, after coming off the bench in the dying moments of their opening day victory. Ching’s experience could play a role in what may be a young Dynamo lineup when facing this Santos side that finished last season as the Champions League runner-up.
Santos could pose trouble to Dominic Kinnear’s side though, as their team sits in sixth place in Liga MX, and are coming off a confidence boosting win over Jaguares, where US National Team forward Herculez Gomez scored a couple of terrific goals. If Santos brings a mostly regular side, Houston could be embarrassed at home, depending on Kinnear’s selection.
#3 SEATTLE SOUNDERS vs. #6 TIGRES UANL
TV: Wednesday, 10:00pm, Fox Soccer Channel/Galavision
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Seattle Sounders went undefeated in Group 4, beating Marathon of Honduras and Caledonia AIA of Trinidad and Tobago, scoring 12 goals along the way. Tigres won Group 6, demolishing Alajuelense of Costa Rica and Real Esteli of Nicaragua at home, and drawing with the two teams on the road.
THE MATCHUP: Seattle Sounders were the lone MLS side remaining in the Champions League to lose their opening match. However, there’s a chance that the future is bright for this squad, and Wednesday night’s match in Mexico could be a chance to see more players in action.
The side lost designated player forward Fredy Montero to Colombian team Millonarios, and key defender Jeff Parke since the end of last year, but replacements in midfielder Shalrie Joseph and Djimi Traore could help lead the team to international glory, once fully fit. In addition, the bright start of homegrown signing DeAndre Yedlin gives Sigi Schmid another option to use, knowing that the youngster can probably take the grind that comes with playing twice a week.
Regardless, the Sounders could be in for a rough awakening when they visit Tigres. The Mexican side is currently in first place in Liga MX, and scored 12 goals in four matches in the last round of the Champions League. Tigres also have not lost at home since October of last year, an incredible stretch of games.
#4 LOS ANGELES GALAXY vs. #5 HEREDIANO
TV: Thursday, 8:00pm, Fox Soccer Channel/Univision Deportes Network
HOW THEY GOT HERE: The Galaxy had a relatively easy road to the quarterfinal round in Group 5, dispatching the Puerto Rico Islanders in impressive fashion, and earning a win and a draw against Isidro Matapan of Honduras. Herediano knocked out MLS side Real Salt Lake and Panamanian side Tauro FC in Group 2 to earn a place in the quarterfinals.
THE MATCHUP: If there’s one match-up that is the most intriguing, it’s got to be this one. The reigning MLS Champions are without two of their key players from last season, in David Beckham and Landon Donovan. Donovan could be back by the next round, assuming Los Angeles makes it, but in the mean time, Robbie Keane, or Sunday’s hat-trick hero Mike Magee will have to lead the line against the Costa Rican squad.
Luckily for manager Bruce Arena, his team, has an abundance of riches throughout the squad, especially up top. Homegrown talents Jack McBean and Jose Villareal are both likely to start, with the former having scored three goals in the group stage of the Champions League last fall, and the latter starring for the US U-20′s in the recent CONCACAF U-20 Championship. Tommy Meyer and Bryan Gaul can slot in on defense. And Hector Jiminez and Michael Stephens can work the middle of the park, and make it their own.
Herediano are struggling so far in their young domestic season in Costa Rica, but they have come on as of late, with two straight wins, and four matches unbeaten.
What do you think of these matches? What do you think are the chances an MLS team makes it to the finals? Do you see any of the teams using more of their veterans in the competition?
Share your thoughts below.