The Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League resumes play this week with the opening legs of all four quarterfinal matches occurring Tuesday and Wednesday evenings (8 PM and 10 PM, FS 1 and FS 2) Four MLS sides remain in the competition: Real Salt Lake, DC United, LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders. All four face showdowns against Liga MX competition. Of that group, Seattle and LA begin the quarterfinals with home leg matches, against Club America and Santos Laguna, respectively. Real Salt Lake and DC United begin with away legs at Querétaro FC and Tigres UANL.
The tournament is traditionally dominated by Liga MX sides, with MLS clubs winning only twice: DC United in 1998 and LA Galaxy in 2000. Many reasons have been proffered for the failure of MLS to take home the tournament, and in so doing, qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup, and the importance of MLS clubs showing their strength in the tournament has also been a subject of robust debate (Jason Davis writes a good primer on the failures and debate about importance here).
Whatever side of the debate you come down on, the reality is that we enjoy soccer tournaments because competition is thrilling and someone wins, which ought to be reason enough to try, but if that too earns a shoulder shrug, how about this? It is without debate that the CCL tournament measures and tests the depth of MLS clubs vis-a-vis their Liga MX counterparts- depth being the key to winning such competitions-- and MLS sides are beginning to assemble clubs that are capable from a depth standpoint of holding up over the rugged competition schedule.
Take the Galaxy for example. How else does one genuinely explain the signing of players such as Jelle Van Damme, Ashley Cole and Nigel de Jong in the off-season? These are players who almost certainly will not be asked to start on a game-to-game basis during the MLS regular season, and who wouldn't be capable of doing so at their advanced age if they are. But in a knockout style competition, they are talented players who are certainly capable of putting in a quality shift or bench spurt to see a game out. These are moves specifically tailored to afford Bruce Arena's side a chance at out-slugging a deeper Mexican club, and a signal of intent from the front office of one of MLS's finest clubs that they are taking the CCL seriously, win or lose. And in the end, that's what most fans of the competition have been asking of their clubs: at least give our guys a chance. Even if they fail.
Here's a brief preview of each of the four quarterfinal legs:
LA Galaxy vs. Santos Laguna
We've dived into the off-season moves made by LA above. Bruce Arena, who for the moment at least remains out of contract following this season, has certainly circled this competition as a potential signature farewell. How well the midfield of Steven Gerrard and Nigel de Jong can handle the on-ball pressure of perennial MLS demon Santos Laguna will likely go a great deal in telling much of the tale.
Santos won the Clausura last spring before fading all the way to 15th in the Apertura season. They are a young side led by Argentine goalkeeper Agustin Marchesín, Chilean attacker Bryan Rabello, and the electric Colombian winger Andrés Rentería, whose blistering pace and technique on the ball will be a daunting challenge to the revamped LA backline. American fans will also recognize longtime MLS alum Jorge Villafaña, who joined the club this season after winning the MLS Cup last year with Portland. His familiarity with most the Galaxy weapons makes him a likely starter in this series.
Series Prediction sure to be wrong: LA Galaxy 4, Santos Laguna 3 . Santos Laguna don't enter in tremendous form, but they've historically given MLS clubs fits and given what we've seen from LA thus far in the preseason, there's just not enough evidence the side has coalesced enough to survive a tough quarterfinal draw.
Tigres UANL vs. Real Salt Lake
There isn't a rule that you can't have a CCL knockout stage without Real Salt Lake heartbreak, but it feels that way. There's the brutal loss to Monterrey in 2011 after grinding out a draw in the road leg. There's the salty-as-hell, Jason Kreis-led vintage Real Salt Lake side that dominated Cruz Azul for 80 minutes in a torrential Mexico City rain only to come up just short of CCL glory. These are defeats the club will never forget. But the Royals get another shot starting Wednesday night against Tigres UANL, a club that certainly enter the quarterfinals as one of the favorites to win the competition.
While in Salt Lake many fans (and probably Jeff Cassar) may be looking at the competition to see if there are marked improvements from last year's disappointing campaign, Tigres enter the fixture with two of the competitions best players in Andre-Pierre Gignac and Rafael Sobis. Along with Mexico's own German dual national, Jürgen Damm and the steady central midfield pairing of Guido Pizarra and Jesus Dueñas, there's not a more dangerous attacking side in the tournament.
Long term, I think Yura Movsisyan and late 2015 signee Juan Manuel Martinez, as well as an improved Joao Plata, will get Real Salt Lake back in the playoff mix in 2016. But while Kyle Beckerman has shown an aptitude to put the stop in lethal attacking groupings before, it is hard to figure how Real Salt Lake can see their way through both legs of this quarterfinal without at least some damage being done.
Series Prediction Sure To Be Wrong: Tigres UANL 5, Real Salt Lake 1.
Seattle Sounders vs. Club America
A riveting quarterfinal shrouded in uncertainty.
How much does the departure of Oba Martins impact the potential outcome?
How much does Osvaldo have left in the tank?
And with Martins gone, does Sigi Schmid scrap his formation switch?
Is it unfortunate or useful that Seattle start at home, given their transition?
Club America managers area always under fire, but is Ignacio Ambriz placing any extra value on this competition, which America has often treated as second-rate?
Pound-for-pound, it is difficult not to think Seattle can play with America over two legs. Clint Dempsey remains one of the best players on either side, though he'll likely feel added pressure with Nelson Valdez and/or homegrown starlet Jordan Morris paired with him instead of the constantly moving Martins. If Schmid reverts to the 4-4-2, does Seattle get enough from new addition Joevin Jones on the flank to give the team width without Dempsey retreating to the flank? Is Tyrone Mears capable enough defensively over two legs?
Seattle should be very steady in the center of defense with Chad Marshall and Brad Evans, and neither of those cats is going to be too rattled in leg two at Azteca. The question everyone should have is whether Seattle can take a reasonable advantage down there?
As for America, this isn't a vintage team, despite a nice collection of talent, including Oribe Peralta, Pipa Benedetto and CONCACAF Cup villain Paul Aguilar. Nonetheless, they aren't perfect, having been held scoreless by the likes of Puebla this year and stretched last weekend by Cruz Azul. Coming off that fixture, Ambriz will have to utilize his depth- his squad selection could tell the tale.
Series Prediction Sure to Be Wrong: America 3, Seattle 2.
DC United vs. Querétaro
Querétaro, who feature the likes of Americans Luis Gil and Jon Bornstein, are probably the least sexy Liga MX club in the competition, but they are still plenty capable of dispatching a DC United team that at times can play a cynical and negative brand of football under manager Ben Olsen and who will be playing in this competition without spectacular goalkeeper Bill Hamid.
Tito Villa scores the goals for Querétaro, who also feature quality play on the wings from Paraguayan Edgar Benitez and the aforementioned Bornstein, who has been a consistent threat on the overlap and had, outside of Fabian Johnson, the best year of any American abroad in 2015. But what really separates this Querétaro side is the dual-destroyers in Mario Osuna and Nery Dominguez, who Victor Manuel Vucetich unapologetically deploys in Gandalf the Grey "you shall not pass" roles with little license to get forward, particularly when his club are playing with the lead. This combination demands inventiveness from the opposing midfields, and truth be told, there's just not a great deal of evidence DC United have the imagination to find goals.
This isn't going to be the most enchanting soccer. Or at least it shouldn't, on paper. But it isn't a tie with a clear favorite.
Series Prediction Sure to Be Wrong: Querétaro 2, DC United 1.