Liga MX out to extend dominance over MLS in CONCACAF Champions League
Now that it's August, it is time to welcome back the CONCACAF Champions League, which kicks off this week with 24 teams vying to become kings of the region. Since Club America failed to reach the final of the 2015 Liga MX Apertura or the 2016 Clausura, the two-time defending champions will not be participating in the 2016-17 edition, guaranteeing that a new team will be crowned.
As usual, the four Mexican teams will be the favorites, while one of the five teams from MLS will be looking to make history and end Liga MX's stranglehold on the competition. There are also several Central American teams who could surprise and make a deep run in next spring's knockout round.
Here is a look at the eight groups:
Group A: W Connection, Honduras Progreso, Pumas
Pumas are the overwhelming favorites to take Group A. W Connection of Trinidad & Tobago are CCL regulars, yet they rarely make a dent in the competition, while Honduras Progreso, unlikely winners of the 2015 Honduran Apertura, are one of six CCL newbies. Paco Palencia's Pumas should be able to wrap up this group fairly early.
Group B: Dragon, Saprissa, Portland Timbers
This is an intriguing group. Portland's last venture into the CCL ended in disappointment, a 2-0 loss to Olimpia of Honduras in the final group stage match of the 2014-15 CCL. This time around, the reigning MLS champions face another Central America powerhouse in Saprissa, who in that same year sent Sporting Kansas City packing in the group stage.
Saprissa boast another strong side and are led by wily coach Carlos Watson, who guided the Ticos to the 1993 CONCACAF Champions Cup. Plus, any fan of American soccer knows just how difficult it is to play in the Estadio Saprissa in San Jose. Outside of those two, Dragon of El Salvador will be making their CCL debut, however little is expected of the 2016 El Salvadorian Clausura champions.
Group C: Central FC, Vancouver Whitecaps, Sporting Kansas City
Perhaps the most even of all the groups. Central FC got a big boost with the signing of forward Kenwyne Jones, who will play with the club this fall before joining MLS expansion franchise Atlanta United in early 2017. That should make the Trinidad & Tobago outfit a venerable foe for Vancouver and Sporting KC. The departures of Octavio Rivero and Fabian Espindola, plus the long-term injury to Kekuta Manneh will limit the Whitecaps in attack, giving Sporting KC the slight edge in a group that could well come down to goal difference.
Group D: Don Bosco, Arabe Unido, Monterrey
It would be shocking if Monterrey did not run away with this group. Los Rayados are far and away the best team of the three, and assuming they take care of business down in Panama against 2013-14 CCL quarterfinalists Arabe Unido, they should stroll to first place. As for Don Bosco, the Haitians are making their CCL debut so a result in any of their four matches would be a nice accomplishment.
Group E: Police United, Olimpia, Pachuca
Death, taxes and Olimpia in the CCL. For the ninth consecutive season, Honduran side Olimpia are in the CCL by virtue of their 2016 Clausura title and once again they should hold their own against a more illustrious opponent, this time Pachuca of Liga MX. Led by feisty head coach Hector Vargas, Olimpia will not be awed when they take the field against Los Tuzos on matchday one, and a result on Mexican soil is within the realm of possibility, especially with hulking striker Alberth Elis in the fold.
It was Elis who caused so many problems for Seattle and Vancouver in last season's CCL, and he'll be looking to do the same against Pachuca. Police United of Belize are another side making their first appearance in the CCL, and similar to what fellow Belizean side Verdes did last season to San Francisco when they spoiled the Panamanians' knockout-round ambitions, Police United could throw a wrench in the plans of Olimpia by earning a result at home against Los Catrachos.
Group F: Alianza, Antigua, New York Red Bulls
At first glance, this would look straightforward for the Red Bulls, but Alianza have had a productive summer by signing seven new players and also can depend on the red-hot Rodolfo Zelaya to keep up his goal-scoring ways (15 last season). To boot, the El Salvadorians play their first two matches at home, and if they can claim wins in both, you would not bet against them to grind out the necessary results away from home.
Still, it's the Red Bulls' group to lose, however it will be interesting to see how much stock head coach Jesse Marsch puts into the tournament. As for Antigua, all credit to them for helping break up the Comunicaciones/Municipal duopoly that has long existed in Guatemalan football. Nevertheless, their maiden voyage in the CCL likely will end in the group stage.
Group G: Plaza Amador, Herediano, Tigres
The best match of the entire group stage could come when Costa Rica's Herediano host 2015-16 CCL runners-up Tigres on matchday two. "Our primary objective is to win the Concachampions," were the words of Herediano coach Hernan Medford moments after winning the 2016 Costa Rican Torneo de Verano last spring.
The Ticos went on a grueling preseason tour of Mexico where they played against seven Mexican teams with the sole purpose of getting ready for the CCL. Medford won the CONCACAF Champions Cup as a player and a coach, and given Tigres manager Ricardo Ferretti's propensity to play reserves in the CCL group stage, Group G is there for the taking for Herediano. As for Plaza Amador, they allowed just nine goals in 18 matches on their way to the Panamanian Clausura crown. They'll need their defense to be at their best in the CCL.
Group H: Real Esteli, Suchitepequez, FC Dallas
Oscar Pareja's FC Dallas should have little difficulty with the opposition in Group H. After a one-year hiatus, Nicaraguans Real Esteli are back in the CCL and will look to repeat their historic 1-1 draw vs. Sporting Kansas City from the 2014-15 CCL, while Guatemalan Clausura champions Suchitepequez are making their first ever CCL appearance. Maybe if Dallas had to go to Suchi's venerable home ground in Mazatenango things might be a little more difficult, but instead they will be playing in Guatemala City's Estadio Mateo Flores, making for a less hostile environment for the Texans.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .