Last year's CONCACAF Champions Cup winners, Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica, did themselves proud with a third-place finish at the recently concluded FIFA Club World Championship in Japan. Now - after barely edging their way back into the 2006 edition of the 44-year-old CONCACAF Club championship, the purple-clad San Jose giants will have their work cut out as they try to make a return to the mountaintop.
USA v. Costa Rica
First up for Deportivo Saprissa are much-feared American outfit LA Galaxy. Led by the orchestrations of US national team standout and FIFA World Cup veteran Landon Donovan, the Southern California club finished champions of Major League Soccer last season after edging New England Revolution in the one-off 'MLS Cup' championship game at home in November.
The defending CONCACAF club champions will have a decided advantage as they are two months into their domestic Clausura championship. LA - for their part - have not played competitive match in nearly three full months as the MLS season runs from spring to fall. A recent 0-3 friendly loss to Korea Republic will not have spirits particularly high in sunny Los Angeles and neither will Saprissa's stylish form and pole position on top of their section of the Costa Rican Clausura.
Led by former US national team boss Steve Sampson - who coincidentally also coached Costa Rica briefly during qualifying for Germany 2006 - LA's hopes will fall to rest squarely on the shoulders of playmaker supreme Donovan, who should be close to match fit after his three recent friendlies with team USA and an exhaustive national team training camp in preparation for Germany 2006.
The first leg on 22 February will take place at the Home Depot Center in LA and the return leg at the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa in San Jose on 8 March.
In a similar position to LA, last year's MLS runners-up New England Revolution will face Liga Deportiva Alajuelense of Costa Rica in only their second time participating in the Champions Cup. Though the Boston-based club were the best team in MLS last season over the course of the 'regular season' and have in the side current national team standout and 2005 MLS Player of the Year Taylor Twellman, they will have their work cut out against Costa Rica's most successful side, historically speaking.
Led by head coach and former Liverpool standout Steve Nicol, the Revs will be bolstered by the fact that Twellman, Clint Dempsey and Pat Noonan have performed so well with the USA in the recent training camp and friendly matches, and should be fairly close to full match fitness despite the fact that it is currently the 'off-season' for Major League Soccer.
"We expect to be in decent shape," Nicol said. "It is a case of gelling together early. Physically, we are in decent condition but, clearly, they (Alajuelense) are going to be sharper than we are because they are in the middle of their season."
Also, La Liga - as Alajuelense are known - will be suffering from the recent sacking of head coach Javier Delgado. Although new boss, Rolando Villalobos, is considered one of the best in Costa Rica and was formerly national team assistant to Bora Milutinovic at Italy 1990, two-time CONCACAF Champions Cup winners Alajuelense are suffering from a pronouced goal drought of late. Though they are still on top of their section of the Costa Rican Clausura, their form has been less than stellar and they have notched only 8 goals in the first seven weeks of the championship.
The first leg will take place in Hamilton, Bermuda - site of Revolution training camp - on 22 February with the return leg scheduled for 8 March at the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto.
Mexican duo much-fancied
Portmore United of Jamaica are the only remaining Caribbean side in the CONCACAF Champions Cup after a succesful run through the preliminary rounds of qualifying. But the islanders will have their work cut out when they take on Mexican giants America, currently wallowing in 10th place in the Mexican Clausura Championship.
The Mexico City heavyweights are much-fancied to unlock the Jamaicans but their favourite status is hinged much more on their bevy of stars and history rather than their recent results, as they are struggling mightily to find their form in the domestic league. Led by Cuauhtémoc Blanco and former Valencia hit-man Claudio 'El Piojo' Lopez, the Mexicans will be a difficult side to resist in attack. And with Portmore not renowned for their defensive assurance, the the scoreline could well get out of hand in the first leg which will be played in the Mexican hotbed of Houston, Texas.
Portmore - currently fourth in Jamaica's Wray and Nephew National Premier League and known as Hazard United until 2002 - have selected Minute Maid Stadium in Houston, Texas to play the first leg on 22 February before returning to the hulking Estadio Azteca on 8 March for the return leg.
The other Mexican outfit alive in the last eight is Toluca, who will take on CD Olimpia of Honduras. The first game will be played at the Estadio Olimpico in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with the second-leg scheduled for Estadio Nemesio Diaz in Toluca.
Olimpia are twice winners of the CONCACAF Champions Cup while Toluca have only managed to lift the trophy once. But despite having history on their side, the Mexican outfit - currently an impressive fourth in the Mexican Clausura and boasting such talents as Brazilian-born Mexican national team standout 'Zinha' and Jose Manuel Sandoval - will be considered favourites to reach the last four over the Tegucigalpa side that have won the Honduran championship for the past two seasons and are, to date, the only Honduran club to take the laurels at a CONCACAF Champions Cup.
CONCACAF Champions' Cup All-Time Winners:
1962 - CD Guadalajara (MEX)
1963 - Racing Club Haiten (HAI)
1967 - Alianza FC (SLV)
1968 - CD Toluca (MEX)
1969 - CDSC Cruz Azul (MEX)
1970 - CDSC Cruz Azul (MEX)
1971 - CDSC Cruz Azul (MEX)
1972 - CD Olimpia (HON)
1973 - SV Transvaal (SUR)
1974 - CSD Municipal (GUA)
1975 - Atlético Español (MEX)
1976 - CD Aguila (SLV)
1977 - Club América (MEX)
1978 - Universidad de Guadalajara (MEX), CSD Comunicaciones (GUA), Defence Force (TRI)
1979 - Deportivo FAS (SLV)
1980 - Pumas UNAM (MEX)
1981 - SV Transvaal (SUR)
1982 - Pumas UNAM (MEX)
1983 - Altante (MEX)
1984 - Violette AC (HAI)
1985 - Defence Force (TRI)
1986 - LD Alajuelense (CRC)
1987 - Club América (MEX)
1988 - CD Olimpia (HON)
1989 - Pumas UNAM (MEX)
1990 - Club América (MEX)
1991 - Puebla (MEX)
1992 - Club América (MEX)
1993 - Deportivo Saprissa (CRC)
1994 - CS Cartaginés (CRC)
1995 - Deportivo Saprissa (CRC)
1996 - CDSC Cruz Azul (MEX)
1997 - CDSC Cruz Azul (MEX)
1998 - D.C. United (USA)
1999 - CID Necaxa (MEX)
2000 - Los Angeles Galaxy (USA)
2002 - CF Pachuca (MEX)
2003 - CD Toluca (MEX)
2004 - LD Alajuelense (CRC)
2005 - Deportivo Saprissa (CRC)