For a tournament still trying to wiggle its way into North America's soccer consciousness, SuperLiga has a polarizing effect on the public that is downright puzzling at times. In one corner are those ready to apply the leper treatment to this now-annual tournament involving four MLS sides and four counterparts from Mexico, the implication being that it's a waste of time. In the other corner are those ready to claim that the tournament is a litmus test for continental supremacy.
Granted, in the grand scheme of all things soccer, SuperLiga barely registers. Are there other competitions with better teams and more on the line? Of course, but last year's edition had its share of memorable moments, some of which bordered on the epic, and in the process, it won over fans and participants alike. The $1 million prize money didn't hurt, either.
"I think SuperLiga is a great tournament," said Houston Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear, whose team fell in last year's semifinals to eventual champions Pachuca. "I think there was a lot of curiosity about it last year, but there were some great games with a lot of intensity and emotion."
Certainly, the tournament's inherent flaws remain. Like last year, all of the games will be played in the United States, and with Mexican teams in their preseason, it makes for a less-than-level playing field. All of this adds to the suspicion that teams from south of the border don't bring their A-game and that the tournament is nothing but a glorified scrimmage.
In some respects, this scenario was played out last year, as Pachuca was the only Mexican entrant to progress beyond the group stage. Whether that attitude will change this year remains to be seen, but there are indications that the tournament's Mexican participants will bring more of an edge this time around.
D.C. vs. CD Guadalajara
RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
8 p.m. ET
Houston vs. Atlante
Chivas USA vs. Pachuca
Houston vs. CD Guadalajara
Chivas USA vs. Santos
Atlante vs. CD Guadalajara
Santos vs. Pachuca
"When we play SuperLiga, we have to win, and it goes beyond the money because many of our supporters come to expect us to win," CD Guadalajara defender Hector Reynoso said. "Not to mention that we played in this tournament last year, and we were left with a bad taste in our mouths since we didn't make it to the second round. We did not come to practice; we came to win."
That attitude will be a welcome addition to this year's tournament, which won't have the hype created by the presence of the Los Angeles Galaxy and David Beckham in 2007. Then again, the tournament's biggest improvement is that all the participants are there on merit. MLS sides were selected based on their finish in the previous year's regular-season standings, with only the top two sides in each conference qualifying. The Mexican entrants comprise the past four teams to win a league championship. With such teams on display, the entertainment level should remain high, which is the whole point of watching in the first place. Here's a breakdown of the teams participating:
Much like MLS champion Houston, Atlante changed cities -- moving from Mexico City to Cancun -- and promptly won the 2007 Apertura championship. The 2008 Clausura proved less kind, however, as Atlante failed to make the Mexican league playoffs, finishing near the bottom of the overall league. To regain its place among the "haves" of the Primera División, Atlante has reacquired Colombian forward Luis Gabriel Rey. Rey likely will be partnered with Venezuelan international Giancarlo Maldonado, whose 18 goals made him an instant hit with the Atlante faithful during its championship season.
United has followed the same script it did last season in that a woeful start has given way to a midseason revival. But while the overall story line has remained the same, some key plot lines are different. In attack, all is well, with Brazilian forward Luciano Emilio regaining his MVP form of last season. But defensively, the team has been among the shakier outfits in MLS. In the offseason, United brought in defenders Gonzalo Martinez and Gonzalo Peralta, as well as goalkeeper Zach Wells. Of the three, only Martinez has impressed, and halfway through the season, the team has yet to record a shutout in league play.
The parent club of Chivas USA will try to bounce back from a disappointing end to the 2008 Clausura season, when the top-seeded club was bounced from the Mexican league playoffs by unheralded Monterrey. Complicating matters are the departures of forward Omar Bravo to Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna and defender Francisco "Maza" Rodriguez to PSV Eindhoven. But rather than bring in reinforcements, Chivas has elected to promote from within. Most of the scoring load now will fall on Sergio Santana, while veterans Ramon Morales and Alberto Medina will do their bit as well.
The reigning MLS champions enter SuperLiga struggling for wins. On the plus side, the Dynamo's four losses are tied for fewest in the league, but the team's league-leading eight ties have seen it make little headway in the Western Conference. This lack of consistency has been especially evident in attack, where Kinnear has been forced to move usual midfielder Dwayne De Rosario up top alongside Brian Ching. Injuries also have forced Kinnear to do some shuffling along his backline, but new acquisition Bobby Boswell has overcome a shaky start and turned in some steady performances.
Probably no team is more excited to be in SuperLiga than Chivas USA. Not only will the tournament mark the Goats' first foray into international competition, but should Chivas advance past the group stage, a possible matchup with parent club CD Guadalajara awaits. Chivas USA has survived a nightmarish run of injuries to start the season and now finds itself contending for the Western Conference title. While the front line still is a bit thin, a formidable midfield with Jesse Marsch, Panchito Mendoza and emerging star Sacha Kljestan has put Chivas USA on a roll.
New England Revolution
The Rev's previous entries in international competitions haven't impressed, with New England exiting the CONCACAF Champions Cup in the first round every time. But Steve Nicol's outfit has been the most consistent team in MLS, and with star forward Taylor Twellman back from an ankle injury, the Revolution should have their full complement of players. As has been the case in previous years, the team's strength is up the middle, with goalkeeper Matt Reis, defender Michael Parkhurst and midfielder Shalrie Joseph all enjoying excellent seasons so far.
There was a time when Los Tuzos were winning every trophy in sight, including the inaugural SuperLiga crown and the 2008 CONCACAF Champions Cup. But the past two Mexican league campaigns have seen them barely qualify for the playoffs. At issue has been a defense that hasn't recovered from the loss of Colombian defender Aquivaldo Mosquera in 2007. But Pachuca remains a team with some breathtaking attacking weapons, especially with the offseason acquisition of forward Bruno Marioni augmenting the talents of Christian Giménez and Damian Alvarez.
Santos is best known in American circles for being the home of Mexican international (and U.S.-born) defender Edgar Castillo. But Santos also are the reigning Mexican league champions, having defeated Cruz Azul in May 2007 in a two-legged final by an aggregate score of 3-2. Santos' attack is led by Argentine forward Vicente Vuoso as well as Ecuadorian midfielder Christian Benitez. In goal, Santos have Landon Donovan's "favorite" keeper, Mexican international Oswaldo Sanchez.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at email@example.com.