LA, Toronto expect tough obstacles
Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle appear poised to mount a serious run toward the knockout stages after early victories and Toronto FC still harbors its own hopes for a repeat trip to the semifinals despite a difficult group. Yet, all four sides must overcome potential challenges in order to keep their campaigns on track.
Toronto and Los Angeles get us started on Tuesday and Wednesday. FOX Soccer offers a look at the diverse tasks that lay ahead for these two MLS sides as they continue their Champions League campaigns:
Santos Laguna (at Toronto FC, Tuesday, FOX Soccer, 8:00 P.M. ET)
No Mexican side has performed as consistently as this Torreón-based outfit over the past four years. Remarkably, this extended spell of success occurred even with significant turnover among the technical staff. Former boss Daniel Guzmán led Santos to its first title since 2001 when he guided the club to the 2008 Clausura championship. He concluded his second spell in charge by yielding to a pair of Argentine bosses that couldn't quite replicate his success. Benjamin Galindo guided Santos to a third playoff defeat in four tournaments in the 2011 Apertura to start his reign, but he erased those painful defeats with the 2012 Clausura title and pushed his side to the best combined record in Mexico last season.
Last season's fine form also played a large part in the run to the final of 2011-2012 CONCACAF Champions League. Santos breezed through group play and dispatched MLS sides Seattle (7-3 on aggregate) and Toronto FC (7-3 on aggregate) in the knockout rounds to reach the final, but Monterrey claimed a second consecutive title with a 3-2 victory on aggregate. The domestic success blunted the impact of that defeat and secured a return trip to the competition this year.
All of that momentum dissipated in time for the 2012 Apertura campaign. Santos opened the campaign with victories over San Luis and C.D. Guadalajara in late July, but it hasn't tasted victory in its past four matches. The poor run includes a 0-0 draw with Pachuca on Saturday to leave the side firmly entrenched in mid-table.
The domestic stutters did not extend to Santos' 5-0 home victory over Águila to open Group 1 play on August 21. Galindo watched his mixture of starters and reserves brush aside the Salvadoran outfit with ease after Carlos Darwin Quintero opened the scoring after six minutes. Quintero grabbed two more goals to seal his hat trick and further tallies by Daniel Ludueña and Edgar Lugo ensured a comfortable margin of victory.
Galindo will want his out-of-form side to muster up a similar effort against a revamped TFC outfit primed to offer a robust challenge at BMO Field. Santos will almost certainly carry the match in possession within its 4-2-3-1 setup. Galindo will hope his side uses it well enough to secure the victory even if he opts to rest a few of his regulars ahead of Saturday's home match against UANL Tigres at Estadio Corona.
US international striker Hérculez Gómez is likely to start and ensures at least one regular goal threat will cause issues for the Reds. Gómez's dynamic movement in the attacking third may prove too much for a revamped TFC back four – perhaps including Irish international center back Darren O'Dea – to handle. If Santos can avoid dipping into the emotional strife that marred the 1-1 draw to kick off that semifinal tie in Toronto earlier this year and maintain their marks on set pieces, then it should claim a second consecutive win to clear its path to the quarterfinals.
Puerto Rico Islanders (at Los Angeles Galaxy, Wednesday, FOX Soccer, 10:00 P.M. ET)
The run of success enjoyed by this second-division side far outstrips its modest origins and its scant history. Puerto Rico emerged in the old USL A-League in 2004 and stumbled through their first years in existence. The appointment of former FC Dallas coach Colin Clarke in 2007 and the retention of a core group of players led to a significant jumpstart in form over the next few years. Clarke guided the Islanders to a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals in 2009 and a second-division title in 2010 before departing for Carolina last winter.
Clarke's final foray into the tournament as Puerto Rico’s boss failed to match the heights of his first two Champions League adventures with the club. Current Group 5 adversaries Isidro Metapán knocked the Islanders out on away goals after the two sides concluded their preliminary round series tied 3-3 on aggregate. A third place finish in the 2012 Caribbean Football Union Club Championship secured the Islanders' fourth straight appearance in this competition.
Former assistant coach Adrian Whitbread assumed control from Clarke after he departed for the Railhawks and maintained the club's status as one of the top sides in the American second division this season. Puerto Rico currently sits six points between NASL leaders San Antonio in joint second place after 23 matches. The haul includes the point gained in a 0-0 draw at Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg on Saturday night.
Whitbread and his charges will hope to improve upon their 3-1 loss to Metapán in El Salvador to open their Group 5 account. Nicholas Addlery handed the Islanders the perfect start by opening the scoring after 25 minutes. Jay Needham's dismissal ten minutes later turned the affair toward the home side and Nicolas Muñoz scored three times after the interval to send the Islanders to an opening day defeat.
The early setback in group play places additional emphasis on Wednesday's date against the Galaxy. Whitbread will have to revamp his back four with the integral Needham ruled out through suspension, but he can at least lean on Addlery (fourth in NASL scoring with eight goals) and Dominican Republic international striker Jonathan Faña to provide the final touch on counterattacking forays.
Puerto Rico's path to victory resembles the same formula Clarke used to great success in this competition: sit back, soak up pressure and wait for the right time to counter. The visitors enter this match as rank outsiders, but they can look to the 4-1 first leg win over the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center in their preliminary round series two years ago for inspiration to pull off a similar feat in this fixture.