Our Champions League grows up

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The group stage of the 2009-10 CONCACAF Champions League is over, and there are a handful of strange lingering sensations. The tournament won't resume until next year, and there's a sense of longing and impatience with that. It was an enjoyable spectacle for fans throughout CONCACAF; that the quarterfinals won't get underway until March is a bit disappointing.

In its second season with a group stage, the Champions League has gone from a tournament with more questions than answers to something that's guaranteed to generate emotions and drama. The playing field in CONCACAF isn't exactly level -- all four Mexican clubs finished atop their respective groups -- but the rest of the region is on fairly equal footing. Such a setup made for dramatic and unpredictable games.

And if this season's knockout rounds are as thrilling as last edition's, this tournament will only get better. How did the CONCACAF Champions League grow from a fledgling tournament with plenty of holes to one that is captivating and entertaining?

It helps when the best teams take it seriously. Even before the tournament started, Cruz Azul and Pachuca set the bar high for themselves. While the clubs could have sent their youth teams to compete in their qualifying series against Herediano and Deportivo Jalapa, respectively, la Máquina and los Tuzos weren't about to take their spots in the Champions League for granted.

Both teams sent out respectable squads in the play-in series, and both were rewarded with positive results. For Cruz Azul, that meant a 6-2 victory in Costa Rica while Pachuca claimed its series on an astounding 10-1 aggregate, including a 7-1 win in Guatemala.

Not coincidentally, the two teams were standouts in the group stage. Cruz Azul was the only team to finish the group stage without a loss while Pachuca finished with a five-game winning streak and was the only team to match Cruz Azul's win total of five.

Toluca and Pumas also won their respective groups as each group finished with a Mexican team on top. And while that isn't exactly a shock -- Mexico's Primera División is leaps and bounds better than the rest of the leagues in this region -- the representative teams all acted like the tournament mattered. Which it does.

For this to have become a true tournament, teams had to grow and pull off results when they were not expected to. The favorites needed to show up but the also-rans and never-weres had to have their place as well. Last time around, that was Puerto Rico. This time, it's a toss-up between Guatemalan side Comunicaciones and Árabe Unido of Panama.

Although clubs don't necessarily reflect their national teams, that Guatemala and Panama didn't even qualify for the final Hexagonal of World Cup qualifying perhaps made their respective teams seem that much weaker. With Panamanian side San Francisco and Guatemalan outfit Jalapa eliminated in the qualifying round, it left one team from each country to carry its respective flag.

Comunicaciones struggled at times, losing badly at home to W Connection (3-0) and not scoring in games at Pumas (1-0) and Marathón (2-0). Things looked even more bleak in their finale. Comunicaciones needed a win to advance past the group stage, but the match was against Pumas and, even though it was at home, such a scenario was a tall order. But Comunicaciones beat the Mexican team by 2-1 and reached the quarterfinal rounds.

Árabe Unido, meanwhile, had perhaps the most stunning result in the group stage as the club opened with a 4-1 thrashing of Pachuca. But poor results against Houston -- 1-1 draw at home, 5-1 loss in Texas -- put a damper on its spirits. However, a 6-0 win over Salvadoran side Isidro Metapán ultimately was enough to put the Panamanians through to the quarterfinals.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that all three teams who were able to beat the Mexican team in their group at home advanced out of the group. Marathón beat Toluca in Honduras.

To the victors go the spoils, but the losers have to deal with the sour taste of failure. This time around, the biggest losers were Costa Rican powerhouse Deportivo Saprissa and Major League Soccer.

Maybe Saprissa isn't as good as advertised. El Monstruo Morado crashed out of the group stage last time around but was supposed to have put up a better fight this time. The previously insurmountable home-field advantage of Estadio Saprissa in San José, though, ended up faltering for the national team in the Hexagonal and it also faltered for Costa Rica's biggest and most successful club.

Saprissa dropped two of three home games and eked out two points on the road, not exactly a formula expected from a team that has won a CONCACAF crown this decade.

MLS, meanwhile, had a bad showing before the tournament even started. Toronto FC failed to score a goal in its two qualifying games and wasn't even able to reach the party, while New York was embarrassed by unheralded Trinidadian side W Connection. Still, given the way the Red Bulls' entire season has gone, perhaps that was a blessing and saved their fans the grief of getting pounded by international competition as well.

The teams who did reach the tournament still fell short of expectations. Houston needed a win in El Salvador in its final game against a team that had yet to win a game. Instead, the Dynamo lost 3-2 and crashed out of the tournament with just seven points to their name. D.C. United actually fared well as its 10 points would have been enough to get out of two other groups, but the four-time MLS champions ultimately were outclassed by Toluca and Marathón and didn't do enough against either side. D.C.'s road tie on Tuesday in Toluca, though, was respectable, but ultimately led to nothing.

For MLS to have as many spots as it has in the CONCACAF Champions League is a disservice to the rest of the region. Out of the 10 teams who have competed in the tournament, whether it's been in the qualifying rounds or the tournament proper, only two have even reached the knockout rounds. Columbus did well to get out of the group this time despite losing by an embarrassing 5-0 at Cruz Azul.

Perhaps one improvement in the 2010-11 Champions League would be fewer spots for MLS teams.