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Aug 3, 2014

Group stage preview

ESPN FC's Steve Nicol reacts to the news of Rafael Marquez's transfer to Hellas Verona.

It's the magical time of year again when teams throughout North and Central America and the Caribbean fire up another edition of the CONCACAF Champions League.

As usual, Liga MX and MLS clubs will be favored to advance out of the group stage and into next spring's knockout round. However there are several Central American teams that could very well throw a wrench in the proceedings. If Costa Rica's recent exploits at the World Cup are anything to judge by, that region's soccer continues to improve and the CCL provides a stage for up-and-coming players from the region to showcase their skills and potentially disrupt any continental championship dreams from CONCACAF's big two, Mexico and the United States.

With that, here is a look at the eight groups:

Group 1: Pachuca, Real España, Municipal

Matchday three could very well determine who emerges from this group. That is when Mexican club Pachuca pay a visit to Guatemala to face Municipal, and should the Tuzos -- already the favorite in this group -- emerge victorious, it is hard to see the Liga MX Clausura runners-up not advancing to the quarterfinals. But Municipal are a tough foe, and have put together a solid start to the Guatemalan Apertura on the back of an excellent preseason. Up top, the Rojos are dangerous with Carlos Ruiz (yes, that Carlos Ruiz) and young El Salvadorian attacking midfielder Kevin Santamaria.

Real Espana will be hurt by the departure of head coach Hernan Medford, who led the team to the 2013 Apertura title. Medford, a Costa Rican, is now head coach of the Honduran national team. Also gone from the club is Honduran international Carlo Costly, who spent the Clausura in San Pedro Sula. Even with Enner Valencia's exit to West Ham, Pachuca have the talent to progress, but a poor showing this week could pave the way to Municipal springing a surprise.

Group 2: Sporting Kansas City, Saprissa, Real Esteli

With Matt Besler and Graham Zusi now signed to DP deals, Sporting Kansas City will not have to worry about any sudden departures at the start of their CCL campaign, but the reigning MLS champions are up against arguably the best team in Central America. Saprissa won the Costa Rican Torneo de Verano back in May and boast several members of the Ticos team that made the World Cup semifinals, including starting defender Michael Umaña.

Real Esteli have won the past eight Nicaraguan championships and head coach Otoniel Olivas has made it clear that the team's objective is the CCL. They managed to get a draw last year against Sporting KC and could complicate things again this season. Sporting KC's visit to the Saprissa Stadium -- a house of horrors for any U.S. team -- on the final matchday looms as the decisive contest.

Group 3: New York Red Bulls, Montreal Impact, FAS

There is no reason why the Red Bulls should not be able to advance with relative ease out of this group. Montreal are enduring an awful season in MLS, and FAS, despite being an almost regular fixture in this tournament, only barely qualified as the second representative from El Salvador. Plus, the schedule favors Thierry Henry & Co., as Montreal have to travel to Red Bull Arena on the final matchday. Granted, with the Impact out of the playoff race, they will be able to focus primarily on the CCL, but the Red Bulls should still be able to advance.

Group 4: D.C. United, Tauro, Waterhouse

D.C. United are red hot heading into CCL action and received a favorable draw against Panamanian outfit Tauro and Waterhouse of Jamaica. With Perry Kitchen firing on all cylinders and Eddie Johnson back in a tournament in which he excels, Ben Olsen's team could have things wrapped up even before their finale at Tauro. The Panamanians won the 2013 Apertura, but things have been rocky ever since and head coach Rolando Palma's job status is currently tenuous at best. Waterhouse boast several members of the Jamaican national team, but the fact that the local league has been out of action since May and doesn't start up again until September is bound to be a hindrance.

Eddie Johnson and D.C. United have a fairly straightforward path out of Group 4.
Eddie Johnson and DC United should have a straightforward path through group play.

Group 5: Portland Timbers, Olimpia, Alpha United

When the draw was made back in May, first glance at Group 5 suggested that Olimpia could be considered favorites to advance to next spring's quarterfinals. Now? Not as much. Exits and injuries have hampered Los Leones' chances, with Honduras internationals Luis Garrido, Brayan Beckeles and Roger Rojas all departing for more lucrative pastures. Mix in a season-ending injury to veteran defender Johnny Palacios and you have a squad that is dealing with some major turnover.

But the Timbers' failure to back up their superb 2013 and the fact that Olimpia's first two matches are both against Guyana's Alpha United give the sense that Olimpia could still make a play for the quarterfinals, especially with the Timbers traveling to Honduras in late October to wrap up the group. Meanwhile, for Alpha United, expectations are low but any result they could get at home, which has been plagued recently by heavy rains, could wreak some havoc in this group.

Group 6: Alajuelense, Cruz Azul, Chorrillo

If there was a group of death in the CCL, then this could be it. Two of last season's semifinalists will be pitted against each other in Group 6 as Costa Rica's Alajuelense will look to take down reigning CCL champions Cruz Azul of Mexico. Alajuelense were no pushovers in last year's competition, in which they claimed victory twice over Club America and were a missed penalty away from possibly securing a first-leg semifinal result versus Toluca. The 2013 Torneo de Invierno winners will host Cruz Azul on the final matchday, and should they have a chance of advancing, expect the always-daunting Alejandro Morera Soto Stadium to be rocking.

For Cruz Azul, their 2013-14 CCL title took some of the sting away from their Liga MX Clausura playoff exit to Leon, and Luis Fernando Tena's bunch will be keen to win a seventh CONCACAF title. It is a stocked team with named players like Mariano Pavone, Christian Gimenez, Gerardo Torrado and recent arrival Hernan Bernadello, who joined the Mexico City side from the Montreal Impact. Talentwise, from top to bottom, Cruz Azul are the most talented team in the tournament.

Cruz Azul will face a tough Alajuelense side in Group 6 to open their CONCACAF Champions League title defense.
Defending champions Cruz Azul face a tough task to make it out of their group.

Chorrillo were winners of the 2014 Panamanian Clausura and have loaded up on some of the country's better domestic league talent in preparation for the CCL, including talented 19-year-old striker Alfredo Stephens, who scored seven goals last season for Plaza Amador. However, it will be difficult for Chorrillo to make much of an impact against two sides that know how to win big CCL matches.

Group 7: Leon, Isidro Metapan, Belmopan Bandits

This group will come down to a "battle of the bicampeones" as back-to-back Liga MX champions Leon will aim to take care of things against El Salvador's reigning Apertura and Clausura champions Isidro Metapan. Leon are the heavy favorites with a squad boasting the likes of Mexico internationals Jose Juan Vazquez and Carlos Peña, but Metapan have a strong duo in attack in Hector Ramos and Nicolas Muñoz. Ramos has four CCL goals to his name, all coming with the Puerto Rico Islanders, while Muñoz has a whopping 11 career CCL goals, four of which came in a group-stage match last year against the L.A. Galaxy.

As for the Belmopan Bandits, the champions of Belize will need something special just to scratch a point in their four matches. Metapan's lethal duo should test the Leon defense, but Mexico's champions should still emerge.

Group 8: Club America, Comunicaciones, Puerto Rico Bayamon FC

Club America's exit at the group stage in last season's CCL signaled that things were not right in Aguila land and that was borne out in the 2013 Apertura final versus Leon. This time around, with striker Oribe Peralta in the fold, Club America will be better equipped to deal with their CCL foes, Guatemala champions Comunicaciones and Puerto Rico Bayamon FC.

Not much is expected from the islanders, who would do well to garner a home result against these two superior sides. Meanwhile, Comunicaciones have reeled off the past four Guatemalan domestic league titles, yet they continue to stutter in continental competition. New coach Willy Olivera has added some talented parts like Mexican Agustin Herrera and Panamanian striker Rolando Blackburn, but it is probably not enough to overcome an ambitious America aside. The Aguilas' visit to Guatemala City on Aug. 26 could all but seal their passage to the quarterfinals.

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