Luis Bueno
Friday April 24th, 2009

Sometime in December, either Atlante or Cruz Azul will line up against some powerful club from some far-off locale in some far-off venue. That's because one of the two Mexican clubs will walk away with the CONCACAF Champions League crown, booking a ticket to the FIFA Club World Cup in the process.

And while the club will have earned the trip abroad, at this point, with eight months before the tournament kicks off, the hope throughout CONCACAF isn't for Atlante or Cruz Azul to succeed, but simply to avoid embarrassing itself -- and CONCACAF in the process.

Sure, the new-look CONCACAF club championship will produce a worthy champion; the winning club will have met all the requirements during the tournament, overcome challenges, scored clutch goals, kept others from scoring, fulfilled, essentially, the responsibilities inherent in a regional championship. But the tournament format isn't perfect, and it had a hand in determining how the respective clubs entered the tournament in the first place.

While previous successes helped the respective teams reach the top club tournament in the region, the clubs' respective form is anything but title-worthy. Consider that, in a combined 28 league games in the current Clausura 2009 season, Atlante and Cruz Azul have combined to win exactly four games. Atlante has been plagued with a feeble attack -- only Tigres and Morelia have scored fewer goals than Atlante's 15 -- while la Máquina have allowed 26 goals, a figure only Necaxa surpassed.

Yet one of those two clubs may line up against Manchester United or Barcelona.

Now, things could change between now and the tournament's opening match. That game won't kick off until after the end of the Apertura '09 regular season, and both Atlante and Cruz Azul have shown the propensity to turn things around quickly. Atlante moved from Mexico City to Cancún following a 6-8-3 campaign, the last in a long line of seasons that came and went in relative obscurity, far from the spotlights shared by América, Pumas and Cruz Azul. In Cancún, Atlante found immediate success and claimed its second league title in club history.

Cruz Azul, meanwhile, went more than a decade between finals trips. After winning its eighth league title in the Invierno '97 title, Cruz Azul didn't return to the league final until the Clausura '08, though it went right back to the final the following season.

The tournament rewarded the teams for their past successes. Atlante was about nine months removed from its title by the time the tournament kicked off, and more than 14 months after winning the league title Atlante began its CCL quarterfinal series against the Houston Dynamo.

Those successful days, though, are long gone. Atlante and Cruz Azul scrapped their Clausura '09 hopes and began focusing on the CONCACAF Champions League. But success there hasn't taken the heat off the clubs' dismal Clausura performance. Cruz Azul coach Benjamín Galindo has been under fire for most of this season despite having taken his club to consecutive finals a year ago. The calls for Galindo's head grew louder following Atlante's 2-0 win in the final's first leg, but he could save some face with a victory in the decisive second leg.

Whoever wins the CONCACAF Champions League will have many months to improve on its form and infuse some more talent into its roster. Summers in Mexico are typically busy, and the Champions League finalists might do well to restock and retool their respective rosters. Otherwise, CONCACAF's representative might make the region look like a less impressive soccer region than it really is.

Mexico manager Javier Aguirre will not have a tune-up match before his second tenure as Tricolor boss resumes on June 6 at El Salvador, but that didn't stop him from planning a three-day training camp with a small band of national team hopefuls.

Aguirre called up a squad of 22 players, who will train beginning Monday in Mexico City. The team has no players from Atlante, Cruz Azul, San Luis or Guadalajara (all four have international matches), nor does it feature any foreign-based players. But the players on the team might give an insight into Aguirre's Mexico plans.

Edgar Pacheco of Atlas was perhaps the most hopeful prospect to join the roster. The 19-year-old is the latest talent to come out of Atlas, a club that produced such current national team stars Andrés Guardado and Rafael Márquez. Teammate Hugo Ayala joined Pacheco. Aguirre also brought in three Toluca players -- defender Edgar Dueñas and midfielders/forwards Nestor Calderón and Carlos Esquivel, plus multiple players from successful clubs such as Puebla and Pachuca. But Aguirre also called in five players from América, a team that has struggled terribly during stretches of the Clausura '09 season, failing to win a home game this year.

Aguirre, though, stayed away from the foreigner debate altogether by not calling in any players born in Argentina or Brazil. Neither Antonio "Zinha" Naelson nor Leandro Augusto nor Matías Vuoso were on the squad, even though both Augusto and Vuoso were key players under Aguirre's predecessor Sven-Göran Eriksson. The only foreign-born player on the squad is New Mexico native Edgar Castillo, whose inclusion has never created a stir. (Also absent was longtime goalkeeper Oswaldo Sánchez, who lost his starting spot after a dismal performance against the U.S. in February.)

As he did in 2001, Aguirre might again place his early success on the backs of strong league clubs such as Pachuca and Toluca -- though his reliance on América players may concern some. Along with Atlas and Puebla, los Tuzos and los Choriceros are all strong playoff-bound clubs who have followed some sort of formula for success. Forging a confident and winning mentality is important for a team that has had their heads handed to them time and again in recent qualifying matches.

His exclusion of foreigners may be a coincidence -- the only regulars on the team were Guillermo Ochoa of América and Fernando Arce of Santos -- as Aguirre also did not call on Pável Pardo, one of the longest-standing active members of El Tri.

Whatever the case, the foundation for Aguirre's squad has been set and El Tri can start its rebuilding process, hoping it will bear fruit in six weeks' time. After all, failure in El Salvador would sent El Tri tumbling into an even more chaotic state than it is now.

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