Mexican teams are kings of the CONCACAF hill when it comes to its regional Champions League, the annual competition (formerly the CONCACAF Champions Cup) that carries a smidge of weight with the clubs, but just marginal interest from hardcore supporters and practically zero resonance in the general sports market.
Still, there is a fairly lucrative prize looming as group stage matches begin on Aug. 17: a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup.
Mexican sides will be favored to get there, with Pachuca back to defend last year's title. Fellow Mexico side Atlante won in 2008 and Mexico City's Cruz Azul fell in the final both years. Overall, Mexican sides have accounted for seven of the eight semifinalists, as Major League Soccer clubs have struggled to gain any foothold in the tournament. The L.A. Galaxy was hardly the first MLS team to go crashing out ingloriously when it was eliminated in preliminary round action last week.
Following preliminary round play, 16 sides now have reached group stage: four from MLS, four from Mexico, the giant killing Puerto Rico Islanders and seven others sides from Canada and Central America. Here's a quick look at the field with double-round robin play set to begin next week in four groups:
Cruz Azul (Mexico):Los Cementeros certainly aren't as well-known as their fellow Mexico City side Club America. And though they don't have as many league titles, they do quite well in these competitions. Cruz Azul has made the CONCACAF Champions League final twice, falling both times. It also once made the Copa Libertadores final, falling to Argentine power Boca Juniors in penalties in 2001. Longtime Mexico national team fixture Gerardo Torrado captains the team.
Real Salt Lake (United States): The tournament comes at a busy but productive time for the current Major League Soccer champion, who has just one loss in league play since April. Jason Kreis' team has been collecting points on the road lately, thanks in part to Costa Rican striker Alvaro Saborio. Midfielders Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman remain the side's heart and soul.
Toronto FC (Canada):Chad Barrett and Dwayne De Rosario scored in Honduras last week as a 2-2 tie against Amado Guevara and Motagua was sufficient to push Toronto into the group stage. Barrett also scored in the Canadians' 1-0 win over Motagua at BMO Field in the first leg. Preki's rebuilt side captured Canada's berth in the tournament by claiming its second consecutive Canadian Nutrilite Championship over Vancouver and Montreal.
Arabe Unido (Panama): One of the bigger fish in the small pond that is Panamanian soccer, Arabe Unido has finished first or second in its domestic league seven times since 2001. The club from Colón, Panama, advanced into last year Champions League quarterfinals but fell to Mexico's Cruz Azul by 4-0 aggregate.
Predicted qualifiers: Cruz Azul, Real Salt Lake
Columbus (United States): The current Eastern Conference leader in Major League Soccer was one of eight automatic tournament qualifiers (who joined the eight preliminary round survivors). Columbus was the only MLS side to advance past the Champions League group stage in 2009-2010, falling to Mexico's Toluca in the tournament quarterfinals. Ageless attacker Guillermo Barros Schelotto leads the side once again, now with five goals and seven assists in league play.
Joe Public (Trinidad and Tobago): The organization is the creation of controversial CONCACAF President and FIFA vice president Jack Warner, who wanted a professional club to that could help develop players for international duty. This is the second time in three years Joe Public has made the tournament's group stage. Kerry Baptiste, capped 43 times for Trinidad and Tobago, scored in both legs of the team's preliminary round win over Costa Rica's Brujas.
CSD Municipal (Guatemala): A heavyweight in its country, Municipal is the only Guatemalan club to win the (formerly named) CONCACAF Champions Cup, although that was back in 1974. Guillermo "Pando" Ramirez, who hit the L.A. Galaxy's game-winner in the 2005 MLS Cup final, provides the main scoring threat.
Santos Laguna (Mexico): The Guerreros (Warriors) are off to a great start in league play with a 3-0-0 record and a plus-10 goal difference so far in the Mexican Apertura. They also go flying into Champions League play off a 6-0 aggregate win over Trinidad and Tobago's San Juan Jabloteh, as Rodolfo Reyes scored twice in the return leg. Santos plays at the modern Nuevo Estadio Corona.
Predicted qualifiers: Columbus, Santos Laguna
CD Saprissa (Costa Rica): The Monstruo Morado (Purple Monster) is the only Central American club ever to reach the FIFA Club World Cup, finishing third in 2005. But failure to advance out of Champions League group stage the last two years has Costa Rica's dominant club desperate to reclaim past glory in the re-named tournament. Veteran defender Victor Cordero is one of the few holdovers from that fantastic 2005 side.
Marathon (Honduras): The team backed into tournament group stage when it fell at home in San Pedro Sula to Panama's Tauro, but advanced on 4-2 aggregate. Claudio Labarinas scored twice in the 3-0 victory in Panama. A third consecutive Champions League quarterfinal appearance may be tough to pull off this time around as Marathon must overcome the loss of high-scoring striker Walter Martinez, who just left for China's Beijing Guoan.
CF Monterrey (Mexico): Monterrey looks like a club on the rise, having won Mexico's Apertura title last December and about to debut in the Champions League tournament. Mexican international Luis Perez, former international Duilo Davino and longtime club fixture Jesús Arellano lead the team. The Rayados play in the 32,000-seat Estadio Tecnologico, Mexico's second oldest ground.
Seattle Sounders FC (United States): In an apparent case of addition by subtraction, coach Sigi Schmid and his Sounders have found their stride since Freddie Ljungberg's estrangement and subsequent trade. The well-supported club is unbeaten in eight straight in all competitions. That includes a 1-0 win over El Salvador's Metapan in Seattle and a 1-1 draw in the return leg to confirm the Sounders' group stage berth. Striker Fredy Montero is sizzling lately, with talk of a possible MLS Most Valuable Player award now stirring.
Predicted qualifiers: CD Saprissa, CF Monterrey
FAS (El Salvador): Argentine striker Alejandros Bentos hit twice in the club's 2-0 victory over Guatemala's Xelaju to claim the 16th and final Champions League group stage berth. Young midfield creator William Maldonado may be a star on the rise. On the other end, captain Cristian Álvarez, Bentos and William Reyes (capped 18 times by El Salvador), remain effective in their early 30s.
CD Olimpia (Honduras): Six players from Olimpia, one of two predominant Honduran sides, recently represented their country in South Africa. Olimpia is the only Honduran side ever to win at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium; the Lions prevailed there in 1988. The side is especially strong along the right, where fullback Johnny Palacios and midfielder Danilo Turcios patrol. Young striker Roger Rojas is property of Wigan Athletic in England but on a two-year loan to Olimpia.
Puerto Rico Islanders (Puerto Rico): The recent giant killers of the tournament struck again in the qualifying round, shocking the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Home Depot Center, 4-1, and then finishing out in the return leg on the island. Coached by former FC Dallas boss Colin Clarke, the Orange Troop rampaged into the tournament semifinals two years ago. American goalkeeper Bill Gaudette has a habit of coming up big in the competition while Jamaican forward Nicholas Addlery provides the primary offensive threat.
Toluca (Mexico): Most of the team is back from last spring's league championship side, which also made a Champions League semifinal appearance. The Red Devils did lose Colombian midfielder Vladimir Marin but replaced the quality in Argentine striker Juan Cuevas. Chilean striker Hector Mancilla has struck 50 times over the past two years for Toluca. Midfielder Antonio Naelson (often known as Zinha) has 49 appearances for Mexico and almost 400 for his longtime club.
Predicted qualifiers: Puerto Rico Islanders, Toluca