Peril looms ahead of every match in the treacherous confines of the CONCACAF Champions League group stage. It isn’t the easy stroll most outsiders suggest. The trips are convoluted, the conditions are unpredictable and the results are increasingly uncertain.
The margin for error is now thinner than ever. CONCACAF increased the number of groups from six to eight and reduced the schedule from six matches to four at the start of the 2012-13 tournament to address domestic fixture congestion and reduce the travel burden on the 24 participants. The switch amplified the need to avoid any unexpected pitfalls — particularly away from home — in order to claim the lone berth out of the three-team group.
Both Major League Soccer and Liga MX clubs can now attest to the new dangers: the first foray into this new format saw anticipated quarterfinalists C.D. Guadalajara and Real Salt Lake both crash out after group play. But there is now a straightforward — if anything but simple — template for success: win at home, draw on the road and you can book a place in the quarterfinals.
Other teams took a more direct approach to the final eight by winning all four group games, but the more fundamental method of progressing to the next round will appeal to Houston and Sporting Kansas City ahead of their vital Champions League clashes on Tuesday night.
Houston faces considerable pressure to collect maximum points against Panamanian side Árabe Unido at BBVA Compass Stadium (live, FOX Sports 1, Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET). Dominic Kinnear’s side claimed a 0-0 draw at W Connection on Tuesday to remain on track for a berth in the quarterfinals, but the two dropped points in Trinidad erases any leeway afforded for Árabe Unido’s visit. Anything less than the full complement of points will place the Dynamo in the unenviable position of chasing the Panamanians — already atop the group after a 3-1 home victory against W Connection in the opening Group 1 match — during the final two group matches.
In the wake of a humbling 5-0 setback at fellow Champions League participants Montréal in league play on Saturday night, the Dynamo cannot afford to dwell on the recent past or slide further away from its usual tenets. This encounter presents an opportunity to cleanse the palette from the Impact’s romp, muster the proper response with a disciplined, effective performance and wrest control of the proceedings ahead of the return leg in Panama City to close out group play on Oct. 24.
Sporting Kansas City travels down to Tegucigalpa to confront C.D. Olimpia (live, FOX Soccer Plus, Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET) with a similar objective and a bit more latitude in case disaster strikes. Peter Vermes’ charges marked their first foray into the Champions League with a thoroughly professional 2-0 victory at Real Estelí to open the Group 2 proceedings on Aug. 7. The triumph over the outsiders from Nicaragua moved Sporting into a position where a second consecutive road draw and a pair of home victories to complete the fixture list would secure a berth in the quarterfinals. The Honduran giants claimed a narrow and necessary 1-0 victory in Nicaragua last week to ratchet up the stakes for this affair. Sporting currently holds the advantage given its goal difference and its pair of remaining fixtures at Sporting Park. Olimpia must triumph on home soil to avoid a hasty exit from the competition and throw a potential road block into Sporting’s expected procession to the quarterfinals.
Similar scenarios will unfold in Guatemala City (San Jose must emerge with at least a point and perhaps snatch all three against Group 5 leaders Heredia on Wednesday to maintain any realistic hope of a quarterfinal berth) and Tijuana (Club Tijuana can essentially book a spot in the knockout stage with a victory against Luis Ángel Firpo on Wednesday after a creditable 0-0 draw in San Salvador to open Group 7 action) this week. Other teams will confront fixtures to keep some hope alive as the second half of the schedule proceeds.
The constant tension generates exactly the sort of intrigue and upheaval required to push the Champions League forward. It isn’t a simple procession for the top sides to march through to their expected quarterfinal places. Upstarts can and do upset the expected pecking order. And the danger and the potential penalties presented by one poor outing ensures the favorites must act professionally and prudently to ensure their Champions League forays extend into next year.