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CONCACAF unknowns offer challenges
The competition provides a stunning contrast between commonly known Mexican and MLS clubs and a series of teams from Central America and the Caribbean that range from domestic giants with significant profiles to unknown minnows with modest resources at their disposal.
The three opponents will provide Houston, Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles competition that falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. All three clubs – Tauro FC of Panama and Salvadoran sides C.D. FAS and Isidro Metapán – present potentially awkward propositions in the second round of group play.
In order to adequately prepare for these midweek affairs, here is a deeper look at the three clubs set to tangle with MLS opposition:
Other Panamanian clubs may hold similar profiles on the international stage, but this Panama City-based outfit has won more championships than any other club in the country since the national league formed in 1988. The last of those 11 titles came in the 2012 Clausura, as Tauro finished fourth during the season before defeating Sporting San Miguelito and Chepo in the playoffs to lift the crown.
The victory over Chepo guaranteed Tauro FC a fourth berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. All three previous appearances in this competition concluded in either the group or the preliminary stage. Although Tauro participated in the past two editions of the tournament, it’s best known for ousting Chivas USA in the preliminary round during its first foray back in 2008-09. Tauro will hope to replicate that type of performance this year after finishing bottom of Group C last time out.
A positive start to the 2012 Clausura campaign should aid that particular quest. Tauro currently enjoys a two-point lead at the top of the table after accumulating 13 points through six games. Those figures include a narrow 1-0 home victory over bottom side Atlético Chiriquí at Estadio Luis Ernesto Cascarita Tapia on Saturday.
Tauro will host its two home fixtures in Champions League play at the significantly larger Estadio Rommel Fernandez, but it must first prepare for a difficult road test to kick off its Group 2 campaign at Rio Tinto Stadium on Tuesday night.
Most of the plans concocted by manager Gonzalo Soto (a Colombian coach now in his third stint with the club) will revolve around Panama international striker Edwin Aguilar. The 27-year-old scored the winner against Atlético Chiriquí to increase his haul on the season to five goals through six games. Current international teammate and former strike partner Luis Renteria now plies his trade for Bolivian side Club Bolivar, but Carlos Salazar's arrival from Colombian side Deportivo Pereira ensures Aguilar will receive at least a bit of support from midfield.
Tauro must focus intently on its defensive shape in order to emerge with a result against RSL. Soto has assembled a resolute unit that has conceded just three times in domestic play this season. Veteran center back Luis Moreno will lean on his extensive international experience with Panama to try to navigate his side through the tricky trip to Utah, but the three-time CONCACAF Gold Cup participant is probably better known for kicking an injured owl while playing in Colombia last year.
C.D. FAS (vs. Houston Dynamo, Wednesday, FOX Soccer, 10:00 p.m. ET)
No club in El Salvador boasts a longer track record of success. FAS has lifted the Salvadoran crown 17 times in its history and can also claim one of the country's three CONCACAF Champions Cup titles for its trophy case. Recent years have proven more of a struggle for FAS as the club has won just one championship since 2005 (2009 Clausura) as Isidro Metapán has claimed the mantle as the country's most successful club.
The continued absence of a CONCACAF-sanctioned stadium in Belize and Metapán's run to the quarterfinals in last year's Champions League paved the way for FAS to earn El Salvador's third berth into this year's competition. FAS joined Metapán and Águila in the draw by compiling the best aggregate record of any non-qualifier in El Salvador during the 2011 Apertura and 2012 Clausura campaigns.
Those modest domestic strides have not transferred into the early stages of the 2012 Apertura campaign. FAS sits fifth in the table after six rounds with losses against joint leaders Metapán and Alianza already on the docket. A 0-0 home draw with Águila on Saturday ensured Agustin Delgado's side sits just three points behind the top two.
While plenty of time remains to rectify the domestic concerns, FAS lost much of its Champions League latitude when it succumbed to a 3-0 defeat at Honduran giants Olimpia to open Group 3 play on August 2. The home side bossed the match from the outset and relied on goals by Luciano Emilio, Juan Carlos García and Roger Rojas to coast to a comfortable victory.
Néstor Renderos' second half red card in that affair complicates Delgado's planning ahead of the Dynamo's visit to Estadio Oscar Quiteño on Wednesday. Delgado plumped for a 4-4-2 formation against Olimpia with seasoned Argentine striker Alejandro Bentos providing most of the menace and much of the movement in the attacking third. Bentos will need more support from the likes of veteran schemer Cristian Alvarez if he is selected, but he faces competition from Jonathan Águila, Emerson Reis and Salvadoran international Ricardo Ulloa for a place in the starting XI.
If FAS wants to keep its Champions League hopes alive against the in-form Dynamo, then it must find a way to improve its marking from dead ball situations and limit the space it usually affords in midfield with better pressure on the ball. Delgado may also want to turn to former Chivas USA midfielder and recent loan arrival Gerson Mayen for a few tidbits about how to cope with a Dynamo side that won't shrink away from the challenge of playing in Central America.
Isidro Metapán (at Los Angeles Galaxy, Thursday, FOX Soccer, 10:00 p.m. ET)
Few clubs in CONCACAF can match the consistent string of successes compiled by Metapán over the past six years. This small club located in the northern reaches of El Salvador near the Guatemalan border has won six titles since lifting the 2007 Clausura. The prolonged run at the top of the league under former player Edwin Portillo marks a significant reversal in fortunes for a side that featured in the second division as recently as 2001.
Metapán built on its consistent domestic form by securing its first berth in the Champions League quarterfinals last season. Two goals by Uruguayan midfielder Paolo Suárez (the older brother of Liverpool striker Luis) clinched a 3-2 victory over Honduran side Real España in the final round of group play and ultimately secured second place in the group when Colorado failed to win at Santos Laguna. The dream run ended at the first knockout hurdle as UNAM Pumas emerged with a 9-2 victory on aggregate, but the 2011 Apertura title clinched a fifth consecutive berth in the tournament.
The international setback did not impact Metapán's form during the 2012 Clausura campaign (finished first in the regular season before suffering a 2-1 defeat to second-seeded Águila in the final) or the start of the 2012 Apertura slate. Metapán currently sits in first place alongside Alianza with 11 points from six games. The efforts to claim yet another title hit a minor snag on Saturday as Milton Molina rescued a 1-1 home draw against struggling Juventud Independiente in the final quarter of an hour.
In addition to its perch at the top of the Salvadoran table, Metapán also currently rests in first place in Group 5 after a 3-1 victory over ten-man Puerto Rico Islanders on August 1. Former D.C. United striker Nicholas Addlery stunned the crowd at Estadio Jorge Calero Suárez by opening the scoring after 25 minutes, but Islanders defender Jay Needham received a red card for an elbow ten minutes later to invite the home side forward in the second half. Panama international striker Nicolás Muñoz scored a hat trick after halftime to ensure the Salvadorans entered the potentially decisive home match with the Galaxy with the necessary three points.
Muñoz will play a critical role in Metapán's chances to snag a surprising victory on Thursday night. The Panama international striker has scored five goals in six league appearances since his summer arrival from Águila. He will receive plenty of attacking support from Uruguayan striker Jorge Ramírez (four goals in six league appearances since his summer arrival) and Suárez as Metapán commits numbers forward in search of goals. Former D.C. United man Eliseo Quintanilla (another recent addition from Guatemalan giants Municipal) provides additional ideas from midfield.
Most of the potential problems stem from a defense that has posted just two shutouts in league play this season. The back four appeared susceptible to clever movements in and through the line and robust center forward play against the Islanders. Metapán will have to address those potential liabilities and funnel the play toward the wide areas going forward to creates the best possible opportunity to retain its unblemished record.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.
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