CONCACAF Champions League: will we see another Liga MX Champion?
By Kim Tate
CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) comes back tomorrow, and Liga MX clubs América, Toluca, Cruz Azul, and Tijuana all have reasons why their presence in this tournament will be felt.
Historically, Liga MX has been the dominant league in this competition since its first finals in 1962, when Guadalajara beat Comunicaciones. Since then, Mexico leads in both formats with 29 wins and 14 runners up, dominating the new format in the winner and runner-up categories with the exception of one team - Real Salt Lake of MLS.
Fans won't see two- time consecutive defending champions Monterrey in this contest since they failed to qualify. Same story for runners up Santos Laguna, who have taken a back seat to Monterrey for two consecutive years. So with this new foursome of Mexican league power, it's anyone's guess as to who will go the farthest and quite possibly lift the CCL trophy when all is said and done. Below is a look at each team as we enter the start of the competition.
Group 4 with Sporting SM and Alajuelense
First match: 8/7 vs. Sporting SM at Estadio Rommel Fernández, 7:00 pm
Manager: Miguel Herrera
Tied with Cruz Azul with five titles a piece in Champions League play; however, none have succeeded under the current format which took effect in 2009. Their most recent victory came in 2006, a 2-1 aggregate win over this year's contenders, Toluca. Prior to 2006, they won titles in 1992, 1990, 1987, and 1977. Las Águilas have 11 league titles and are tied for most all time league wins with Chivas de Guadalajara, after defeating Cruz Azul 4–2 on penalty kicks in a dramatic comeback in the 2013 Clausura final.
A big part of América's success was thanks to the late Christian Benitez, who left América on loan with Qatari club Al Jaish after lifting the Liga MX trophy in May, and passed away only a day after his first match with the Qatari club last week. Las Águilas postponed their first two games of the 2013 Apertura because five of their players were with the Mexico National Team in Gold Cup play, including Raúl Jiménez, who scored in their recent 3-0 victory over Atlas at Estadio Azteca on August 3. Their first game of this season against León on the road resulted in a 1-1 draw, which could have been a 2-1 victory had Rubens Sambueza not missed a late penalty kick, but he redeemed himself in the game against Atlas, where he had an assist and scored off a direct free-kick. América have some momentum going, and a deep run in Champions League play is just what this team needs to silence speculation that they won't be able to sustain top form.
Group 3 with Valencia and Herediano
First match: 8/22 vs. Herediano at Estadio Azul, 5:00 pm
Manager: Guillermo Vázquez
Cruz Azul have the most success of all four Liga MX clubs in this CCL. Like Las Águilas, they also boast five international wins, including two "runners up" titles in 2008-09 and 2009-10 under the current format which took effect in 2009, giving them an edge over América who haven't even gotten that far since the 2006 win over Toluca. In years past, El Azul were consecutive victors in 1997 and 1996, and 1971, 1970 and 1969.
They sit at 1-1-2 on the season, having lost two of their last three games and drawing in the other. Christian Giménez boasts a goal and an assist. Manager Guillermo Vázquez was appointed in 2010, and is now leading the eight- time league champions who trail only Toluca (10) and Club América (11).
Group 6 with Caledonia AIA and Comunicaciones
First match: 8/6 vs. Caledonia at Nemesio Diez, 5:00 pm
Manager: José Cardozo
Toluca's history in CCL isn't as substantive, but they do boast two wins (1968, 2003) and were two-time runners up in 1998 and 2006. Paraguayan forward Pablo Velázquez leads the team with two goals and an assist in four games, and they're 1-2-1 on the season. Their only win came against Morelia on July 26, where a Jefferson Montero hat trick couldn't stop them from coming back after being down 2-1 and eventually winning 4-3. Like Velázquez, new manager José Cardozo, who has only been in appointment since May of this year, is a Paraguayan former striker, and played for Toluca for 10 years, boasting the accolade of being the club's all-time top goal scorer with 249 goals in 332 appearances. The club finished top of the table in the 2012 Apertura, but finished 13th in the 2013 Clausura.
Group 7 with CD Victoria and Luis Angel Firpo
First match: 8/6 vs. Luis Angel Firpo at Estadio Cuscatlan, 7:00 pm
Manager: Jorge Almiron
Young club Tijuana's rise in Liga MX has been nothing sort of attention grabbing. The Xolos stepped onto the scene in 2007 and were promoted to top flight in 2011. In December of 2012, they were crowned Liga MX Champions. As each year has progressed, the club has become stronger and more prominent, with its US presence growing both on the squad and with the fan base. Earlier this year, they made a deep run in Copa Libertadores where they bowed out in the quarterfinals, but the experience playing against Brazilian giants and having to endure long travel gives them an edge to be reckoned with.
Argentine striker Dario Benedetto made his season debut in the apertura opener with a hat trick, and Xolos boast talent of Fabian Martinez, Joe Corona, Edgar Castillo, and 18 year old San Diego native Paul Arriola, who has made an impact in just about every game in which he's played since pre-season. That's not to mention CCL veteran Herculez Gomez, leading CCL in scoring against MLS opponents with Santos Laguna. Although Gomez has not had the chance to play a regular season match with his new club due to injury, his familiarity with US national teammates Corona and Castillo should help some, and when he's fit and able to return, he should be a good leader for the rest of the pack in not only his goal scoring ability, but his experience in this competition.
Tijuana has only played two regular season games under new Argentine manager Jorge Almiron: a 3-3 draw with Atlas and a 2-1 loss to Morelia on August 3. Castillo and Corona both missed the opener due to Gold Cup duty, and we still have yet to see what the integration of Gomez can do to the squad, but they'll be coming into the competition for the first time in team history, looking to make a big impact.
So now that we have a better idea of where these teams stand, it should be fun to watch them advance in this tournament, right? If tradition holds, we'll see one of them crowned champion.