2018 CONCACAF Champions League: Round of 16 Preview
A little while back I introduced the teams competing in this year’s edition of the CONCACAF Champions League, which is the first tournament to be played under the new format. That new format, for those who aren’t aware, is a 16-team knockout tournament, with two legged ties at every stage including the final.
The group stage is gone. Every match-up is do or die, and I think the new round of 16 is going to be much more compelling than the old groups of three. But enough about the format; let’s talk about the games themselves. There are naturally 8 series to take a look at, shown below in the order from the draw.
Cibao (Dominican Republic) vs C.D. Guadalajara (Mexico)
Chivas really lucked out on this one. While the team is looking awful in Liga MX right now, Cibao are so outmatched it would be a big shock to see them even get on the board. The Caribbean Champions aren’t even in-season, only adding to the mountain they have to climb.
It will be interesting to see who Matías Almeyda sends out to play during this series: Do you give the first team some rest or do you try to get them going against weaker opposition?
There really isn’t much to say here; Cibao will need a miracle, maybe two or three miracles, to knock off Chivas. And miracles, in case you didn’t know, don’t happen very often.
Santa Tecla (El Salvador) vs Seattle Sounders (USA)
Seattle are the 2017 MLS West champions, and they have a pretty well built team. They have key players all over the field, from Stefan Frei to Roman Torres to Cristian Roldan to Clint Dempsey and Will Bruin up front. Santa Tecla bring a nice core of El Salvador national team members, including Gerson Mayen, who has returned to the team in 2018.
Seattle’s hurdle in this series will be how to survive their road trip. The Sounders haven’t been very good away from the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field over the past few seasons, and their record in Central America isn’t too hot either; they most recently lost to Olimpia in Honduras two years ago.
Santa Tecla face the same problem. There is a real chance for a home result (especially considering this will be Seattle’s first competitive game in months), but if the Salvadorians lose at home in the first leg, a turnaround in Seattle would be next to impossible. If they do get that home win, or even just a draw, they’ll have to hold off a serious Seattle onslaught for 90 minutes. The game plan for Santa Tecla has to be to win at home and then grind out a 0-0 draw in Seattle, but only time will tell if they can pull that off.
Olimpia (Honduras) vs New York Red Bulls (USA)
Olimpia enter as the 2017 CONCACAF League champions, while Red Bulls qualified as a result of finishing first in the East back in 2016. One thing to note about this series: Due to the current situation in Honduras, Olimpia’s home match has been moved to the Estadio Nacional in Costa Rica, rendering their home field advantage largely useless.
This is quite the lucky break for the Red Bulls, who failed to win in two games in Central America last year. Yes they still have to deal with the travel, but playing for the cameras only rather than in front of 30,000 Olimpia fans might make things a bit easier for them.
As far as goals go, expect quite a few in this series. The Red Bulls are hardly defensive stalwarts, and Olimpia were the highest scoring team in the CONCACAF League a year ago, plus the highest scoring team in Honduras so far in 2018. Bradley Wright-Phillips is a perennial golden boot contender for New York, and Olimpia will have their hands full trying to stop him for 180 minutes.
On the other end, the danger man for Olimpia is none other than CONCACAF veteran Carlo Costly. Costly is one of those players who just scores. He doesn’t need space, he doesn’t really need help, he just gets the ball and makes things happen. I put a lot of weight on the veteran status, more than most, but it’s important to realize that with all the shenanigans that happen in CONCACAF a guy who can keep a cool head can go a long way.
Check out his game winner vs Alianza below:
This series is gonna be a close one.
Motagua (Honduras) vs Tijuana (Mexico)
Like Olimpia, Motagua will be forced to play at home away from home, though they’ll be in Texas instead of Costa Rica. Las Aguilas are in first place in the Honduran Clausura through eight weeks; Tijuana sit in 8th in Liga MX.
The Xolos offense finally came to life just this past weekend, putting four goals past Pumas. Tijuana had scored just three goals prior to that all season long. But while the offense did come to life, a worry sprung out of Saturday night’s game as well: Gustavo Bou, perhaps the most dangerous attacking player on the team, was carted off the field. From what we know right now, Bou is out of commission for at least the first round.
That’s a pretty big stroke of luck for Motagua, who were probably already feeling confident about being able to hold off this Tijuana attack. I highlighted Rubilio Castillo in the team previews, and I’m going to highlight him here again: Castillo is exactly the type of player that Las Aguilas need to bring down Tijuana. This series is probably going to be a low scoring grind, and Castillo (not unlike Carlo Costly) is a player who can get a crucial away goal even if it looks like nothing will come out of the game.
Herediano (Costa Rica) vs Tigres UANL (Mexico)
The draw was cruel to Costa Rica. Herediano were a team many people were giving a real chance to make a run this year, but that all fell apart in December. You see, Herediano had an undefeated regular season during the Apertura and were looking like one of the best Costa Rican teams in recent memory. Then, they fell apart in the playoffs, culminating in a finals loss to lowly Perez Zeledon.
Also in December, they were drawn to face Tigres, who are the reigning Mexican champions and widely considered to be the top team on the continent. Needless to say, people lost faith in Herediano pretty quick. But it’s not hopeless for El Team, who are currently leading the Costa Rican Clausura, and have shown some fight against Tigres in years past.
That’s right: It’s not the first time these two teams have met in the CCL recently, having been in the same group the past two seasons. Tigres won both encounters last year, while both games ended as a draw two years ago. Now I know that doesn’t look all that promising for Herediano, but trust me when I say those draws two years ago were very dicey for Tigres, who would go on to finish as runners-up.
Here’s a brief highlight video of one such draw; even from these short clips it’s easy to see Tigres had some trouble.
Now obviously, the teams have changed a lot since then, and even in the past year since the last time these sides met, but just know that the precedent is there. Can Herediano hold off the onslaught from players like Andre-Pierre Gignac, Enner Valencia, and Edu Vargas? I don’t think so, but stranger things have happened.
Colorado Rapids (USA) vs Toronto FC (Canada)
Ah yes, the all MLS match-up. Let me take a minute of your time to remind you how absurd it is that MLS is given five spots in this tournament, despite having never won the title. Mexico, who have won every single championship so far, get four spots. Now I get it, Canada needs a spot, but why give USA four?
Anyway, let’s talk about Toronto. It seems like every year there is a team that is hailed as “the MLS team that can finally do it,” but in Toronto’s case that might finally be true. Toronto last year were the best MLS team of all time. The question is, can they keep it up now in 2018.
The roster is star studded. Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Sebastian Giovinco are all back for another year, and are determined to make history. Giovinco has been the best player in MLS for a while, and finally will get a chance to show what he can do on the continental stage.
Colorado, on the other hand, are about the least threatening MLS team to compete in recent memory. They had a dreadful 2017, finishing 10th (of 11) in the Western conference and 20th overall. I know many Toronto fans were upset after the draw, having to play a “big” team in the first round, but really, I think the Rapids are one of the easiest opponents Toronto could get.
A bad MLS team in preseason form is surely easier than having to play in Costa Rica, or against Olimpia, and Toronto (who had an early preseason to prepare for this series) should have no trouble disposing of them.
Tauro (Panama) vs FC Dallas (USA)
Panamanian teams did quite well in the CONCACAF League, making up half of the final four, but Tauro’s task will be much more difficult than what their compatriots had to do. But that’s not to say it’s impossible; fans may remember Arabe Unido stunning Monterrey twice during the group stage last year, though they were easily disposed of in the quarterfinals by…FC Dallas.
Dallas bring a handful of notable players to the table like Mauro Diaz and Kellyn Acosta, but they are lacking depth following the decision to trade away Walker Zimmerman and let St. Kitts and Nevis utility man Atiba Harris go. Roland Lamah and Max Urruti did the bulk of the scoring for Dallas last year, combining for 24 goals.
If Tauro can contain those two, they’ve got a shot. Big Edwin Aguilar, who stands 6’1, is a guy who probably would’ve been marked by Zimmerman if he was still around, but instead he’ll get to contend with some smaller and less skilled defenders. Also notable for Tauro is Marcos Sánchez, who has returned to Tauro after a few seasons in Venezuela. The midfielder has 37 caps for Panama.
Deportivo Saprissa (Costa Rica) vs Club América (Mexico)
In terms of overall talent, this series probably features the most of any in the first round. In terms of prestige, this series certainly features the most of any in the first round. América are the seven-time regional champions, while Saprissa (who have been CONCACAF champs themselves on three occasions), have re-established themselves as the most feared team outside of Liga MX/MLS, often proving themselves to be better than many of the teams from the big two leagues.
América’s key players include well…just about everybody. Jérémy Ménez has arrived from France. Oribe Peralta is still a consistent goalscorer. Edson Alvarez is a superb defender that can play anywhere in the back. Flaming hot Henry Martín is starting to cool off, but he’s still dangerous. Saprissa will have their hands full.
Now, El Monstruo Morado brings a lot to the table as well. I have sung praises for Marvin Angulo in the past, and I will continue to do so. The 31 year-old has been playing so well of late that he has been thrust back into the conversation (albeit on the outside looking in) for a World Cup spot. New signing Johan Venegas from Minnesota should be a nice boost to the offense.
And the offense is what it’s all about with Saprissa. They scored a league leading 50 goals last season in just 22 games, and have 20 in 10 games so far this year.
Don’t be surprised if away goals make the difference in this one. Saprissa are incredible at their home stadium, long known to be one of the most difficult places to visit in CONCACAF. And on the other end, Estadio Azteca, even when not filled, is still the Azteca, and it will be tough for Saprissa to get anything done in Mexico.
Come back later to laugh at these if you want:
Chivas def Cibao
Seattle def Santa Tecla
Olimpia def Red Bulls
Tijuana def Motagua
Tigres def Herediano
Toronto def Colorado
Dallas def Tauro
América def Saprissa
(Images and Videos Courtesy of CONCACAF)