Ask any fan of Mexican soccer what international club competition they’d like to see their team participate in, and you’ll likely get only one answer: Copa Libertadores. With its iconic history, big time money, worldwide spotlight, and elite competition, the South American tournament carries enormous prestige, even in Mexico. It also tends to easily outshine its younger North American cousin, the CONCACAF Champions League.
Over the coming weeks, six Mexican Primera clubs will be in action across the two tournaments, as Copa Libertadores group play continues, while Champions League kicks off its quarterfinal round.
This year’s Copa Libertadores competition has been further magnified in Mexico by the participation of two of the country’s biggest clubs: Chivas and Cruz Azul. Chivas, easily the most popular team in Mexico, hoped that another Copa Libertadores run would help deflect attention away from their disaster of a domestic campaign. Five losses in the first six league matches gave Chivas its worst start in history, and Copa Libertadores provided an opportunity to save what looked to be a lost season. So far, results in the South American tournament have also been unfriendly. Having opened with a loss and a draw, Chivas will need a much better run of results if they want to advance past the group stages and give their ever-hungry fan base something to cheer about.
Mexico’s other Libertadores participant has fared much better. Cruz Azul sits alone atop their group after winning their first two matches. There are still four matches to play – including two against Brazilian giants Corinthians – but ‘La Maquina’ have put themselves in great position to advance to the knockout round.
Even with the obvious pedigree of Libertadores, one hopes that the focus of Mexican fans will begin to shift northward in the coming weeks. It’s no longer a stretch to argue that the best bet for quality, competitive, international football for Mexican clubs will actually be the final rounds of CONCACAF’s tournament. It is, after all, the competition where Mexico’s best clubs (the winners and runners-up of the preceding two Primera seasons) land. It also offers the only path for a Mexican team to the FIFA Club World Cup.
Champions League – which has been in its current form since 2008 – continues to grow in importance every year. A big detraction in the early going (in part because of the perceived effortless dominance of the Mexican sides), the first two years of the expanded competition saw Mexico claim seven of eight semifinal spots. Last year that all changed. Real Salt Lake advanced to the final and had Monterrey on the ropes before eventually succumbing to the ‘Rayados.’
This year’s CONCACAF competition promises to be the most competitive and entertaining yet. All eight remaining teams can lay legitimate claims to being serious trophy contenders.
Four of those eight teams are from the Primera, with two facing off in the quarterfinals on Tuesday night. Despite the two teams’ obvious familiarity, the series between Monterrey and Morelia may be the most interesting matchup of the round.
Morelia enters the knockout rounds at the perfect moment. After a slight stumble to start Mexico’s Clausura, ‘Los Monarcas’ have played the most consistent football in the league. Currently on a five-game win streak that’s vaulted them into first, Morelia is peaking just as the CCL championship round begins.
On the sideline, manager Tomas Boy is in the midst of one of the finest performances of his career. The veteran coach has successfully blended a perfect mix of talented veterans and emerging young talent into a championship-level squad. One big testament to Morelia’s success this season was found in the recent friendly between Mexico and Colombia. At one point in the second half, three Morelia players – Enrique Perez, Miguel Sabah, and Gerardo Lugo – were all on the field for Mexico, while another – Aldo Leao Ramirez – was finishing up a solid starting performance for the Colombian side.
Conversely, the early weeks of Monterrey’s season played out like a soap opera centered around the talented Humberto Suazo. Stating his desire to move back to his native Chile, Suazo aired his grievances with Monterrey’s ownership, testing the patience of both his teammates and the team’s fan base as he stayed away from the club. The ordeal was a huge distraction, as no one clear if and when the team’s best player would return. The fog finally lifted on February. With no transfer agreement reached, a still under-contract Suazo had no choice but to return to the field.
Suazo may have missed a month, but he showed up ready to play (and in surprisingly good shape) – a virtue, as his importance cannot be overstated. His presence up top alongside fellow striker Aldo de Nigris, creates one of the most fearsome scoring tandems in Mexico. Their presence was immediately felt in Suazo’s first start of the year, as he took just over four minutes to score against Puebla.
De Nigris also performs better when Suazo takes the field. A tall, physical, target striker, De Nigris benefits tremendously from both Suazo’s creativity, as well as the attention he draws from opposing defenses. Combined with former Lyon attacker Cesar Delgado on the right, ‘Los Rayados’ have the ability to beat anyone in the competition.
It is with much less fanfare that Pumas enter the quarterfinal round. Champions of the Mexican Primera just one year ago, the team has struggled mightily in recent months. Currently in the bottom half of the league standings, Pumas seem to be stuck in a transition mode. The team is in the process of turning the reigns over to a corps of young players (such as Carlos Orrantia, David Cabrera, and Carlos Campos) who haven’t reached the level of consistency required for Primera success. The team also appears to lack leadership at times, something that can be partially attributed to the offseason retirement of respected veteran Francisco Palencia.
The Pumas backline still features an experienced unit led by Dario Veron and Marco Palacios, part of the reason the defense has been Pumas’ strength so far this season. For things to change in attack, though, striker Martin Bravo needs to claim the team’s leadership mantle. He is the lone figure with the talent and experience to lead the offense in a more productive direction.
While things finally took a turn for the better this past weekend when Pumas earned a tough road win over Toluca, the team opens Champions League with a longer trip – traveling to face one of El Salvador’s best, Isidro Metapan. Still having enough quality to win the competition, the quarterfinal series offers an excellent chance for Pumas to jump-start their season.
Mexico’s fourth team in the competition will feature in what is possibly the most highly-anticipated match-up of the quarterfinal round. Santos Laguna will take on the Seattle Sounders in the round’s only showdown between Mexican and MLS sides.
The big story heading into the matchup is the injury to Carlos Darwin Quintero. A key component of the Santos attack, Quintero suffered a leg injury a week ago and will miss both matches against Seattle. Unfortunately for Sounders FC, the loss of Quintero did nothing to slow down Santos’ attack this weekend, with a slumping Oribe Peralta scoring four in a 5-2 win over San Luis.
Peralta’s four goals shouldn’t conceal what was a full team effort up front, with Quintero’s absence leading to a shuffling of the starting lineup. Carlos Morales took a spot on the wing, while Herculez Gomez stepped into the middle with Peralta. Gomez scored for the second week in a row, while Morales’ brilliant service led to two assists.
Each of the four Mexican Primera sides in the Champions League carries a legitimate chance of raising the trophy. This year, for perhaps the first time, you can also say the same about the other four quarterfinal teams. As the competition continues to grow in both quality and competiveness, it will also grow in prominence within the Mexican sports landscape. At the current rate, the day isn’t so far off when the gleam of the CCL trophy – and not its South American counterpart — will shine brightest in Mexico.