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Jul 23, 2009

Mexican teams likely to dominate Champions League again

Last year's launch of a regional competition featuring accomplished clubs of the United States, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean never captured imaginations on a grand scale. Fan interest was tepid at best and media attention ran sparse. This year, organizers' efforts to gin up regard for the 2009 tournament and establish it as a highlight on the annual soccer calendar took an early blow when one club wasn't even engaged enough, apparently, to submit the proper paperwork. But on they go, as the second CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) Champions League version begins with Tuesday's preliminary round matches. While the bulk of 78 games in the competition will play out this summer and fall, Champions League action stretches into late April of next year. The winner's ultimate reward once again is a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup. But that certainly won't fall to Chalatenango of El Salvador. Instead, fellow Salvadoran club CD Luis Angel Firpo will replace Chalatenango, as CONCACAF officials announced last week that the first-choice qualifier had failed "to meet tournament requirements by not returning a signed participation agreement." Mexico's Atlante won last year's inaugural event, overcoming fellow Mexican team Cruz Azul in the final. In fact, three of four semifinalists last year were from Mexico. The Mexican teams' success was in stark contrast to Major League Soccer's pitiful showing, as only the Houston Dynamo managed to muster a respectable account. Here is the basic layout for this year's 24-team tournament: The initial, 16-team preliminary round is a knockout stage, with eight matchups to be decided by a home-and-away series. The opening legs will be played Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday; the return legs are set for Aug. 4-6. From there, the eight preliminary round survivors join eight seeded teams in round-robin group play beginning Aug. 18 and stretching into late October. Major League Soccer and USL are well represented once again: D.C. United, Red Bull New York, Toronto FC and the USL's Puerto Rico Islanders must navigate the preliminary round. Houston and Columbus have already qualified for the next round. They'll join Mexico's Pachuca, Toluca, UNAM Pumas, Honduran power Marathon, Costa Rican giant Saprissa and others as group play begins in late August. The most interesting preliminary round matchup may be the Toronto-Puerto Rico test. Toronto FC qualified as Canada's representative with an implausible triumph on the final day of round-robin play in the Canadian Championships. USL side Vancouver had the inside track and appeared en route to a Champions League berth. Toronto faced a road match at Montreal Impact on June 18, and all the Impact needed to do that night at Stade Saputo was win, draw or lose by fewer than four goals. But Dwayne De Rosario's hat trick and two goals by Amado Guevara guided a memorable 6-1 road victory for interim manager Chris Cummins and his men, as Toronto's smash-and-grab secured the berth.

CCL schedule
First Leg

Tuesday
D.C. United (USA) vs. Firpo (SLV)
8 p.m. ET

Pachuca (MEX) vs. Jalapa (GUA)
10 p.m. ET

Wednesday
Toronto FC (CAN) vs. Puerto Rico Islanders (PUR)
8 p.m. ET

San Francisco (PAN) vs. San Juan Jabloteh (TRI)
8 p.m. ET

Liberia (CRC) vs. Real Espana (HON)
10 p.m. ET

July 30
W Connection (TRI) vs. New York Red Bulls (USA)
8 p.m. ET

Herediano (CRC) vs. Cruz Azul (MEX)
10 p.m. ET

Olimpia (HON) vs. Arabe Unido (PAN)
10 p.m. ET

Aug. 4
Puerto Rico Islanders (PUR) vs. Toronto FC (CAN)
8 p.m. ET

Jalapa (GUA) vs. Pachuca (MEX)
10 p.m. ET

Firpo (SLV) vs. D.C. United (USA)
10 p.m. ET

Aug. 5
New York Red Bulls (USA) vs. W Connection (TRI)
8 p.m. ET

Cruz Azul (MEX) vs. Herdiano (CRC)
10 p.m. ET

Aug. 6
Arabe Unido (PAN) vs. Olimpia (HON)
8 p.m. ET

San Juan Jabloteh (TRI) vs. San Francisco (PAN)
8 p.m. ET

Real Espana (HON) vs. Liberia (CRC)
10 p.m. ET

They'll meet up straight away with the Islanders, guided by former FC Dallas manager Colin Clarke, one of the real surprise stories of last year's initial competition. The Islanders' dream run in the 2008-09 tournament finally met its match against Mexican power Cruz Azul in the semifinals. Clark's side had a two-goal aggregate lead in the return leg of the teams' semifinal series before goals by Pablo Zeballos and Javier Orozco helped push the match into penalty kicks, where Cruz Azul prevailed. Also worth watching is the Red Bulls' opening round meeting with Trinidad's W Connection. The Red Bulls' playoff situation in MLS is hopeless. Embattled manager Juan Carlos Osorio and his men may still be mathematically eligible, but have no realistic chance of reaching the league's postseason. With the U.S. Open Cup effort also in the wastebasket, only a successful Champions League run could help the team in Major League Soccer's largest market salvage something worthwhile from an otherwise pitiful season. A Red Bulls win in the series, which starts on Thursday in Trinidad, would see the struggling club join a group including UNAM Pumas, the winner between Guatemala's Communicaciones and Municipal and the winner of Costa Rica's Liberia and Honduras' Real Espana (Honduras). D.C. United would surely like to do well in Champions League, but its situation is altogether different from New York's. Manager Tom Soehn and his men have a chance to accomplish something truly special in 2009; United is one win from a successful U.S. Open Cup title defense and is well positioned at the moment for a push into the MLS playoffs. So, at the moment, the three most prestigious trophies open to capture by U.S. soccer clubs remain available for RFK. But fortune may not favor the greedy, and Soehn must strategically measure the jeopardy for his team in terms of wear and tear. The RFK bunch will play almost twice a week for the next month and a half, including matches in MLS, the Open Cup final, Champions League encounters and one very high-profile friendly against Real Madrid. It all caught up with Soehn's overly stretched roster last year as United collapsed down the stretch, crashing out meekly in the Champions League competition and failing to even make Major League Soccer's playoffs. United's pitiful Champions League form highlighted the general MLS struggles in last year's competition -- and perhaps demonstrated the American sides' collective lack of regard for the upstart tournament. New England and Chivas USA, both dealing with extensive injuries, fell to underdogs in the 2008 preliminary round. United concluded round-robin play at the bottom of its four-team group with an embarrassing minus-9 goals against average. Meanwhile, Montreal and Puerto Rico of USL stuck it to the higher-tiered league, advancing out of group play into the Champions League quarterfinals. The tournament could gain additional traction as it moves from its infancy, but it does face continued obstacles. In addition to the Chalatenango hiccup, one club each from Belize and one from Nicaragua were dismissed from this year's field when CONCACAF officials determined that their stadiums failed to meet minimum standards. Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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