The CONCACAF Champions League continues Thursday with Seattle and Houston facing two tough foes. Sounders meet Caledonia, who cannot be dismissed despite Trinidad and Tobago’s lesser domestic league, while the Dynamo face a firefight against Olimpia, Honduras’ most decorated club.
Caledonia AIA vs. Seattle Sounders (Thursday, 8:00p.m. ET, FOX Soccer)
Few, if any, teams entered this competition with a lower profile than this small club based in Arima, Trinidad and Tobago. Even in its own country, Caledonia falls well behind familiar names like Defence Force, Joe Public (admittedly, now mired in the second division), San Juan Jabloteh and W Connection in the TT Pro League pecking order given its scant record of success. The modest history of the team has not stopped manager Jamaal Shabazz – also the boss of the Guyana national team – and his players from dreaming of an unexpected run to the knockout stages.
Their dreams are at least rooted in some form of reality after Caledonia sealed its first Champions League berth by winning the 2012 Caribbean Football Union Club Championship earlier this year. Shabazz navigated his side through a second round group including adversaries from Antigua, Haiti and Suriname to reach the semifinal stage. A 3-1 victory over USL Pro side Antigua Barracuda in San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago, clinched a spot in this year’s competition, while the victory over W Connection on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw ultimately sealed the club’s first regional title.
With the TT Pro League yet to start the 2012-13 campaign (last season kicked off in early September), Caledonia has trained its focus solely on its continental duties. The additional preparation time has yielded mixed results so far: Caledonia debuted in the competition with a 3-1 defeat at Seattle on Aug. 2 and secured its first point with a 0-0 home draw against Honduran side Marathón on Aug. 22.
Caledonia must improve upon its showing at CenturyLink Field in order to claim a result against Sounders FC on Wednesday night. Sammy Ochoa, Fredy Montero and Andy Rose scored in the first half to give the home side a comfortable cushion, but Kareem Joseph converted from the penalty spot five minutes into the second stanza to reduce the margin of defeat against a Seattle group that eased into a lower gear as the match progressed.
Shabazz will hope Sounders FC opts to continue that reserved approach and name another reserve-laden lineup when they visit Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva. Caledonia boasts a more cohesive shape than usually displayed by Trinidad and Tobago clubs in this competition, but it cannot afford to absorb pressure for 90 minutes to procure a result. In lieu of trying to obtain possession against a Seattle team that will enjoy more of the ball, Caledonia will look to Trinidad and Tobago international Jamal Gay to hold the ball up front and permit the team to push forward when possible. Those meager measures may not prove enough to prevent Seattle from claiming a second victory in two attempts.
Olimpia vs. Houston Dynamo (Thursday, 10:00p.m. ET, FOX Soccer)
The most decorated club in Honduran football marks its centennial year with yet another excursion into the CONCACAF Champions League. Current manager and former star Danilo Tosello leads the efforts to celebrate this year in style with a mixture of continued domestic success (two consecutive league titles) and revived fortunes at international level. No Honduran side can match Olimpia’s storied history on either level (25 domestic titles and two CONCACAF Champions’ Cup triumphs in 1972 and 1988), but Tosello and his players will want to ensure that this particular jubilee unfolds without a hitch.
Any form of success in this year’s tournament would offer some retribution for the preliminary round exit to Mexican side Santos Laguna in the 2011-12 edition. Olimpia crashed out of the competition 4-3 on aggregate despite claiming a 2-1 victory in the second leg at Estadio Tiburcio Carias Andino in Tegucigalpa.
Continued domestic excellence secured yet another berth in the competition this time around, but Olimpia must overcome its indifferent league form to make an impact in Group 3. The perennial contenders sit second in the table behind unheralded Victoria after six rounds. Two wins and four draws represents a decent start to the campaign for most sides, but the inability to pick up full points falls well short of the usual standards. The string of stalemates continued on Sunday with a 1-1 home draw against mid-table Platense.
The domestic stumbles did not impact the start of Champions League group play as Olimpia notched a straightforward 3-0 home victory over C.D. FAS on Aug. 2.
Roger Rojas’ goal provides the modest advantage over the Dynamo on goal differential heading into this particularly critical affair between the top two sides in the group. The Honduras striker’s impressive domestic form (four goals in six outings) could earn him a place up front in the usual 4-4-2 formation, but Tosello preferred the more experienced Luciano Emilio (a former MLS MVP) and Juan Mejía as his strike tandem in the opening match. All three players could pose a threat to the Dynamo if Dominic Kinnear once again opts to play a reserve-laden starting XI.
Tosello will need to tighten up his side in all departments in order to secure a second straight home victory. Olimpia conceded too many set piece opportunities in poor areas to C.D. FAS in the opening match. C.D. FAS squandered those opportunities, but the Dynamo will refrain from such leniency.
In addition to those set piece concerns, Olimpia must devise a way to cope with former star and current Houston midfielder Oscar Boniek Garcia. If Olimpia does not track the movements of Boniek Garcia and Brad Davis carefully in the center of the park, then the two Dynamo schemers will pick passes that could expose a rearguard that might struggle to cope with Houston’s pace and power along the front line. It will take a determined effort on all fronts to overcome those potential liabilities, but Olimpia could snatch a second consecutive home result if it can somehow figure out a way to do so.