The United States will be well represented in the CONCACAF Champions League, with Columbus Crew, Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders representing the MLS. Following a relatively successful World Cup for the United States, US Soccer will be hoping that the MLS clubs can capitalise on football’s increasing profile in the United States to break the Mexican stranglehold of the region’s leading club competition.
The Mexican Primera División has accounted for the last five winners of the competition, with four of those five finals being all-Mexican encounters. Many observers had anticipated that the Mexican ascendancy would be challenged by Bruce Arena’s LA Galaxy. Those predictions were dashed over the two legs of the Preliminary Stage courtesy of a 5-3 aggregate defeat at the hands of the Puerto Rico Islanders, managed by former Northern Ireland international Colin Clarke.
The elimination of the Galaxy leaves the American challenge in the able hands of last year’s MLS Cup Champions Real Salt Lake, and Columbus Crew, who achieved the best regular season record in the MLS last season. The United States’ wild card comes in the form of Seattle Sounders, who held on to a slender first leg advantage over El Salvador’s Metapan to earn a spot in the Group Stage draw.
The draw itself has placed some formidable opponents in the paths of the MLS sides. Salt Lake have been paired with fellow MLS side and Canada’s sole representatives in the competition, Toronto FC as well as Panama’s champions Árabe Unido and, perhaps their toughest opponents, Mexico’s Cruz Azul. The Mexico City club are one of the most storied teams in the Western Hemisphere and will be hoping to atone for their two consecutive defeats in the past two Champions League finals. Beating Cruz Azul may prove to be beyond the Utahans, but their strong recent performances in the MLS betray a growing confidence. The beguiling Argentine duo of Fabián Espíndola and Javier Morales are key to any regional ambitions that Real harbour. Morales has been the mastermind of the side’s attacking ambition and has laid on countless assists for Robbie Findley and the newly acquired Costa Rican international striker, Alvaro Saborio. Espíndola, on the other hand, provides a scintillating threat on the flanks. A capable defence, marshaled commendably by Kyle Beckermann should see Salt Lake through the Group Stage ahead of Toronto and Árabe Unido.
Columbus Crew face a far less intimidating prospect in Group B. Nevertheless, the Ohioans must overcome another fine Mexican squad in the shape of Santos Laguna. Santos, who finished as runners-up in the bicentario, boast several Mexican international stars and will enjoy a potentially overwhelming home advantage at the intimate Estadio Corona in Torréon. Columbus, who once again lead the MLS’s Eastern Conference, will be confident of at least claiming second place in the group ahead of Guatemalan champions C.S.D. Municipal and the bizarrely named Joe Public F.C of Trinidad & Tobago.
For Columbus, much will depend on the veteran Argentine striker Guillermo Baros Schelotto. The former Boca Juniors striker continues to defy his 37 years with five goals and seven assists to his name this season. As the team’s focal point, Schelotto will need to at his best for the Crew to succeed where they failed last year and progress past the Quarter Finals. The form of centre-back Chad Marshall has once again drawn the attention of many US football fans, with many questioning the national team’s coach, Bob Bradley’s, decision not to name him in the squad for this summer’s World Cup. The old clichés about winning at home and drawing away from home in the Group Stages of continental competition may prove to be true in Group B at least. Should Columbus Crew maintain the defensive solidity brought by Marshall, Hejduk and company, and keep Schelotto at peak fitness for the away legs then the Crew should be capable of claiming more than the customary draws away from home against Municipal and Joe Public.
A more uncertain path awaits Seattle Sounders. Seattle, participating in their first Champions League, are well equipped with what American sports analysts traditionally refer to as ‘the immeasurables’. Coach Sigi Schmid has overseen the birth of a football club with a unique identity in Major League Soccer. Seattle’s home games at Qwest Field attract capacity crowds with an average of over 35,000 people, giving the Sounders a genuine home advantage which other MLS sides can only envy.
The visits of Costa Rica’s preeminent club, Saprissa, and Honduran champions Marathón may prove to be crucial to the Sounders’ chances of qualifying for the next round. Once again it is a Mexican side, Monterrey, who will provide the sternest challenge for the Sounders. Los Rayados are lead by Chilean striker Humberto Suazo, who will pose a significant threat to Kasey Keller’s goal. The forty year old former Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur keeper has shown remarkable resilience throughout his career and continues to impress for Seattle, earning the plaudits for his numerous clean sheets and irrepressible command of his penalty area. The Sounders’ solid base gives way to an electric midfield and attack, with no player more praiseworthy than Columbian Fredy Montero. Montero, the MLS’ Player of the Month for July, is perhaps the brightest footballing prospect in the league and is worthy of a move to a club in one of Europe’s leading leagues. The 23 year old has been presented with a foil in the guise of Swiss striker Blaise Nkufo.
The Sounders began the season in middling form but have since resurrected their fortunes and their current form may see them progress from a group in which they are not expected to thrive. If Seattle are to confirm their rising status and advance then avoiding defeat to Saprissa is imperative.
Whether it be the Sounders, Columbus Crew or Real Salt Lake, the MLS may finally be ready to challenge the Mexican sovereignty over the Champions League. The possibility of furthering the stature and international renown for the MLS internationally is a captivating objective for the clubs. The quality of the continuously improving MLS and the undoubted calibre of the qualified MLS teams should see at least one of these sides through to the Semi Finals.