The final stages of the CONCACAF Champions League kick off this week. The tournament - formerly known as the Champions Cup – is shaped in the mould of the UEFA Champions League, a showpiece for the best club sides from North, Central America and the Caribbean.
Following an exhaustive preliminary round and group phase, the competition has been whittled down to the top squads from the region, with eight teams playing home-and-away contests in hopes of moving on to the semis and eventually claiming club bragging rights in the New World. Mexican teams have won the last five editions of the competition.
With a format change in place from previous editions to ensure that two teams from the same country will not meet up in the final - which has happened four of the last five editions, including the last two – the quarter-finals will open with a raft of mouth-watering encounters. An all-USA clash pits Jason Kreis’s 2009 Major League Soccer champions Real Salt Lake against 2008 toppers Columbus Crew, who are dealing with the loss of former USA workhorse Frankie Hejduk and influential Argentine creator Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
Their new star is veteran striker Jeff Cunningham, who returns to the Ohio club where he began his MLS career. “I am very proud to be back home,” the Stars and Stripes speed merchant said of the move back from FC Dallas. For their part, RSL will be without ace forward Robbie Findley, who recently moved to England and Nottingham Forest.
Whichever side wins, it will mark their first appearance in the rarefied air of the semi-finals. The contest will also be the first competitive match for both sides since the MLS play-offs in November.
The Mexican sides, as ever, will be hot favourites, with teams from the country leading the all-time winners’ table with 27 titles, 21 better than closest chasers Costa Rica. All four of the Mexican combatants that reached this year’s Champions League are still alive at this quarter-final round, guaranteeing a Mexican team will be in the final for a third straight year.
The same day (22 February) as the Crew-RSL opening leg in Ohio, Mexican rivals Cruz Azul host Santos Laguna in Mexico City. Both sides are in the midst of the Mexican Clausura campaign with both Cruz Azul, who have won the Champions League on five occasions -- a best record they share with Mexico City side Club America -- and Santos in second place in their respective groups in the Mexican championship. The next day will see two more Mexican sides at it, with Toluca, who currently top their Clausura group, taking on Monterrey, who are sputtering through a stop-start season and sitting third place in their section.
Ticos, Catrachos clash
The final series in the quarter-final stage on 24 February sees a Central American derby between Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa – three-time Champions League winners – and Olimpia, the only Honduran side to take the prize with two regional titles to their name. Traditional giants of Tico football, Saprissa are coming off a poor last season and are still not shimmering domestically. Olimpia, meanwhile, have got off to a weak start in their local championship and are sitting in the middle of the table. For this reason, both sides will pay keen attention to the Champions League, and the tantalising possibility of silverware on offer.
"I would like to be better than (Olimpia), with more continuity, having more confidence, but this may not be the case," Saprissa's Mexican coach Juan Manuel Alvarez said. "Also we have to be real. We have lacked continuity in recent matches. We have to work harder and play better."
The second legs of the quarter-finals will be played between 1 to 3 March. The winner of each aggregate series advances to compete in the semi-finals, with the finals played over two legs in late April. The winner of the CONCACAF Champions League will represent the region at the next FIFA Club World Cup.