While the Champions League battles rage on in Europe, the North American version of the competition also resumes this week. Three of the five Major League Soccer teams to qualify for the competition are still in it, but they face tough Mexican opposition in the quarterfinals.
The three MLS teams are the lowest seeds in the final eight, and two of them, LA and Sporting KC opened the domestic season with losses on Saturday (the other, San Jose did not play). It’s safe to say that if any of them win their series, it will be an upset, and one that would carry MLS closer to capturing that elusive CCL title.
Here’s how the four CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal matchups stack up:
L.A. Galaxy vs. Club Tijuana
First leg: StubHub Center, Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on Fox Soccer Plus/Galavisión
Second leg: Estadio Caliente, March 18 at 10 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 2/Galavisión
Likely the most interesting matchup for American fans will be the border war between L.A. and Tijuana. The two stadiums are separated by just a two-hour drive, and both have wide fan bases in Southern California. The Galaxy have been an MLS powerhouse since the league’s inception, but Tijuana’s rapid ascent has seen the Xolos infiltrate the San Diego soccer market.
It took the Xolos just two seasons in the Mexican top division to win a championship, and the team has been notorious for poaching Mexican-American players for the squad. Despite a mediocre start to the 2013 Apertura that sees the Xolos in 10th place at the moment, they blazed through the Champions League group stage by scoring 10 goals and allowing just two.
Three Tijuana players have close ties to SoCal: Joe Corona was born in L.A. and played for San Diego State University; Hérculez Gómez was born in Oxnard and played for the San Diego Gauchos (USL) and Sockers (indoor) as well as making 53 appearances for the Galaxy, his most at a pro club; and Paul Arriola played for the Galaxy Academy and turned down a professional contract to sign with Tijuana in 2013.
Player to watch: Hérculez Gómez, Club Tijuana. There’s something about playing against MLS teams in the Champions League that really gets Gómez going. He helped Santos Laguna eliminate the Seattle Sounders twice in a row, and his Twitter banter with MLS fans has been legendary. At Tijuana, he made his return from an injury in September by scoring a hat trick as a substitute against Honduran club CD Victoria.
Prediction: Club Tijuana advances.
Sporting Kansas City vs. Cruz Azul
First leg: Sporting Park, Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 2
Second leg: Mexico City, March 19 at 10 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 2/Galavisión
Cruz Azul enters the knockout round as favorite to win the competition as the top team in Liga MX, despite being seeded second based on group-stage results. The properly dubbed Máquina (Machine) is cutting a swath through its domestic competition. Until a surprise 3-0 loss to Tigres on Saturday, Cruz Azul was the only undefeated team left in the league.
Its squad is filled with talent, from goalkeeper José de Jesús Corona to joint leading scorers Marco Fabián and Mauro Fórmica in attack. The team recently raided MLS for Mexicans Rafael Baca, Michael Farfan (permanent transfers) and José Villarreal (on loan from L.A.).
Kansas City missed fullbacks Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic and midfielder Uri Rosell in its 1-0 MLS loss to the Seattle Sounders on Saturday. Rosell should be ready to go on Wednesday, but Myers and Sinovic are both questionable. Cruz Azul will still be without their injured captain, Mexican veteran Gerardo Torrado, who fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot in early February.
Player to watch: Marco Fabián, Cruz Azul. After a rough time in the last year at Chivas de Guadalajara, Fabián joined Cruz Azul for a yearlong loan in December. Since then, he has scored four goals in nine league appearances. At Cruz Azul, he has been reunited with manager Luis Fernando Tena, who coached Mexico to a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics. Fabián also scored in all three of Mexico’s group games at the 2013 Gold Cup.
Prediction: Especially if Kansas City is still battling injuries, Cruz Azul should have no problem winning this series.
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Toluca
First leg: Buck Shaw Stadium, Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 2
Second leg: Toluca, Mexico, March 19 at 8 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 2/UDN
San Jose doesn’t have it much easier than Kansas City, coming up against the current second-placed team in Liga MX and top seed in the Champions League quarterfinals. Pablo Velázquez was the leading scorer in the fall league tournament and drew interest from top clubs in South America, as well as teams in Europe, before signing for Toluca in 2013.
Isaác Brizuela, a native of San Jose who initially hid his birthplace from the Mexican Football Federation, represented Mexico at the 2013 Gold Cup and is finding his feet again with the club after being loaned out to get more playing time. Goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera is a prolific shot-stopper who led Mexico to victory in the 2011 Gold Cup.
The Earthquakes will play their usual direct style and hope to unsettle the Mexicans and take a lead into the away leg. They received a bye on the first league weekend to prepare for the matchup, while Toluca made quick work of Puebla, 3-0, on Friday.
Player to watch: Chris Wondolowski, San Jose Earthquakes. If Wondolowski is going to stake his claim to a World Cup roster spot, he will have to perform in international competition. Beyond that, the Earthquakes will need their talismanic goalscorer to have a great series to have any chance of advancing. He scored the winning goal in both group-stage victories for San Jose.
Prediction: Toluca wins by a landslide.
Alajuelense vs. Árabe Unido
First leg: 0-0 in Alajuela, Costa Rica, on Monday
Second leg: Panama City, March 20 at 10 p.m. ET on Fox Soccer Plus/UDN
This series is already underway, as the two teams played to a scoreless draw in Costa Rica on Monday. Both have proven to be staunch in defense, as the dual shutout extended Alajuelense’s streak to 413 minutes and Árabe Unido’s to 283 in this competition.
On the other end of the field, both have been spotty around goal as well. Alajuelense scored just four goals in the group stage, tied with San Jose for the lowest among teams that advanced. Árabe put up seven, but five of them came against Trinidadian club W Connection, one of the weakest in the competition.
The game on Monday was not short on chances, as Alajuelense had 21 shots to Árabe’s seven, but neither goalkeeper had too much to do because of the shooters' inaccuracy. This series will come down to who can finally get on the board at Estadio Rommel Fernández, Panama’s national stadium, in the return leg.
Player to watch: Patrick Pemberton, Alajuelense. Costa Rica’s goalkeeper at the 2013 Gold Cup is often overlooked in favor of Keylor Navas in major competitions, but he is the best goalkeeper in the domestic league. His poise guided Alajuelense to the 2013 winter tournament playoff title, as he kept a vital clean sheet against Deportivo Saprissa in the semifinals and dove the right way on the only miss in the final shootout. Prediction: Alajuelense wins in penalty kicks.