The CONCACAF Champions League is back and, as always, Liga MX clubs are at the heart of it all. Four of Mexico’s most storied clubs will once again battle in North America’s premier club competiton. Standing in their way, however, is a plethora of hungry Central American and Caribbean clubs yearning for their spot in the limelight and four American (and Canadian) MLS sides that will be vying once more for the chance to finally unseat the Mexican league from its throne at the top of CONCACAF and win that ticket to the presitgious FIFA Club World Cup in December. This should be fun. Here’s everything you need to know before the ball gets rolling on Feb. 19.
How to Watch:
United States (Spanish): Univision Deportes, fuboTV (free trial + monthly subscription)
Mexico & Latin America: Fox Sports (TV & online)
Caribbean: Flow Sports
Canada: Yahoo! Sports (online streaming), TSN
Tigres UANL (MEX) vs. Saprissa (CRC)
First Leg: Feb. 19 in Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, San Jose, CRC
Second Leg: Feb. 26 in Estadio Universitario, Nuevo Leon, MEX
Tale of the tape: The biggest shock in this matchup is despite Tigres’ overwhelmingly better roster, it is Saprissa that are three-time winners of this tournament, the last time being in 2005 when they beat Pumas UNAM. The most successful club in Costa Rican history, Saprissa comes into this year’s competition led on the sidelines by the legendary Walter Centeno and with the most expensive roster in their home country, something they have in common with their Mexican opponents. It’s the rich versus the rich.
Tigres are clear favorites on paper, and have all-star caliber players in every position, but it remains to be seen whether or not Ricardo Tuca Ferretti will take this competition seriously. The legendary Brazilian manager has a knack for only caring about the league and leaving all these secondary tournaments on the backburner. However, when they play to win, Tigres are a team that prove to be almost unstoppable in tournament settings and most famously made it to the final against River Plate in the Copa Libertadores four years ago.
Players to watch: Former MLS players Christian Bolaños and Jairo Arrieta are in charge of the goals for El Monstruo Morado and have been mainstays on the Costa Rican national team for years. The leadership of these savvy veterans could lead them to a few good results.
Besides the obvious choices of Gignac, Vargas and Valencia, Tigres’ talent is found in the midfield, where Javier Aquino can be an amazing playmaker on his day and holding mids like Guido Pizarro (when he returns from injury) and Rafael Carioca are vital pieces to the starting XI.
Prediction: Costa Rican teams have historically been kryptonite to bigger Mexican squads. Hell, the same is true on the national team level. A Saprissa upset is not out of the question, and actually very possible. Tigres have disappointed in the past, however, Ferretti’s side has been the unoffical best club in CONCACAF simply due to his roster’s talent level for a while now, but they’ve never won the Champions League, instead losing two straight finals in 2016 and 2017. My guess is they’ll try to win this one this time around and won’t be bounced out anytime soon.
Houston Dynamo (USA) vs. Guastatoya (GUA)
First Leg: Feb. 19 in Estadio Doroteo Guamuch Flores, Guatemala City, GUA
Second Leg: Feb. 26 in BBVA Compass Stadium, Texas, USA
Tale of the tape: Guastatoya is the newest revelation club from Guatemala and the team won its first two league titles in back-to-back fashion in 2018. On the back of their five-year head coach Amarini Villatoro, Guastatoya is finally in the limelight and making its debut in the Champions League. They have a solid team philosophy and their lot of foreign players complement their national pieces to create a very disciplined and orderly team.
Houston underachieved last season in MLS but luckily won the U.S. Open Cup by knocking off Philadelphia and qualified for this tournament. Wilmer Cabrera’s team has potent offensive players capable of being some of the MLS’ best, but the rest of the squad’s inconsistency and injury trouble was a problem. Over the offseason, they made moves to improve those positions, letting go of aging players like Phillippe Senderos, Arturo Alvarez, Adolfo Machado and Leonardo and bringing in younger talent like Chris Duvall, Matias Vera, Tommy McNamara and Marlon Hairston.
Players to watch: A few Liga MX fans may recognize former Veracruz defender Omar Dominguez and former Club America and Queretaro midfielder Isaac Acuña, both of whom are suiting up for Guastatoya these days and are regulars in the lineup.
For Houston, Colombian striker Mauro Manotas is its star talisman with 25 goals scored last season, while the explosive Honduran duo of Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto are some of the funnest players to watch.
Prediction: Despite their league struggles, Houston should have no problem knocking off this up-and-coming side. Guastatoya play collected, so it may not turn into a blow out, but Houston just has too much goalscoring prowess for Guasta to handle.
Toronto FC (CAN) vs. Independiente (PAN)
First Leg: Feb. 19 in Estadio Agustin Sanchez, La Chorrera, PAN
Second Leg: Feb. 26 in BMO Field, Ontario, CAN
Tale of the tape: Independiente is another team making its debut in this tournament. The club recently won its promotion back to the Panamanian first division in 2017 and won its first league title one year later. The team took a step back last season and didn’t qualify for the playoffs, but now seem to be back on track after four games in the Panamanian league this semester (3W-1D-0L).
Toronto were poised for great things after winning the MLS Cup in 2017, but since then the team failed to qualify for the playoffs last season and lost to Chivas in the 2018 Champions Legaue final. Not only that, they took an L against Tuca’s Tigres in the Campeones Cup. They’re a talented team, but they’ve severely underwhelmed their fanbase, and it’s up to the players and Greg Vanney, who was linked to the USMNT job for a while, to get back to winning ways and hope to avenge their title loss from a year ago.
Players to watch: For Independiente, two young Panamanian forwards are the stars of the offense: Omar Browne and Jorman Aguilar have five of the team’s eight goals so far this season in league play.
After Victor Vazquez and Sebastian Giovinco left for the Middle East, what’s left is a Toronto side that will severely miss the creativity and spectacle that the duo brought to the pitch. However, they still have Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio. They also brought in German-born American striker Terrence Boyd to back up Altidore and Belgian international Laurent Ciman to reinforce the backline.
Prediction: As much as I want to, the hot takes are going to have to wait. Toronto is easily favorable in this matchup and should breeze past Independiente. As soon as Toronto faces a Mexican side, however, that’s a different story.
Alianza FC (SLV) vs. Monterrey (MEX)
First Leg: Feb. 20 in Estadio Cuscatlan, San Salvador, SLV
Second Leg: Feb. 27 in Estadio BBVA Bancomer, Nuevo Leon, MEX
Tale of the tape: One of the best Salvadoran clubs of the past few years, Alianza made it to this tournament by winning both the 2017 Apertura and 2018 Clausura tournaments in El Salvador. Historically, Alianza were the first Salvadoran and Central American club to lift the Champions League (then known as the Champions Cup) trophy in 1967. Most recently, it was the first club in its country to go undefeated for an entire season in the 2017 Apertura and lost only one match last season. They are once again the table leaders and favorites to win the title this season.
Meanwhile, Rayados are currently the only undefeated club in Liga MX and have almost a stupid amount of talent at their disposal. South American all-stars like Rogelio Funes Mori, Dorlan Pabon and Maxi Meza work together nicely with established Mexican stars like Jesus Gallardo and newest addition Miguel Layun. In addition, Monterrey’s young players like Carlos Rodriguez, Edson Gutierrez, Cesar Montes and Jonathan Gonzalez make this a roster with tremendous depth and offensive firepower unlike most other clubs in this competition. An easy candidate for the Liga MX title, let alone the Champions League.
Players to Watch: Salvadoran great Rodolfo Zelaya’s recent departure to LAFC certainly hindered Alianza’s offense a bit, but Colombian forward Bladimir Diaz is leading the Salvadoran league with six goals, so he’s the biggest threat to Monterrey’s defense while Oscar Ceren is the commander in Los Albos’ midfield.
If Maxi Meza plays significant minutes in this tournament, keep an eye on him, the Argentine international has already shown glimpses with Monterrey that he’s in a league of his own. Otherwise, Rayados’ young core is talented and exciting, and 22-year-old midfielder Carlos Rodriguez has undoubetdly become one the biggest Liga MX revelations this season.
Prediction: There’s almost no chance here. Alianza is strong but Monterrey is just too deep a team to lose in the first round. Rayados are title favorites and have a manager that has won it all before. The best thing Alianza can hope for is to not get blown out at home.
Santos Laguna (MEX) vs. Marathon (HON)
First Leg: Feb. 20 in Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula, HON
Second Leg: Feb. 27 in Estadio Corona, Coahuila, MEX
Tale of the tape: Marathon earned its ninth Honduran league title during the 2018 Clausura season and qualified for this tournament. This is the team’s fifth appearance in the Champions League and La Sinfonia Verde are back on top of the Honduran leage table this season as the only team left undefeated after seven matches.
Santos struggled early in the season after the departure of an important piece in Jonathan Rodriguez to Cruz Azul, but they are still keeping afloat in the Liga MX. Chilean international Diego Valdes has proven to be a fine addition to the midfield with Gallito Vazquez and Brian Lozano, and this tournament might be the perfect opportunity for some of Santos’ talented youth products like Jesus Angulo, Gerardo Arteaga, Ulises Rivas and Eduardo Aguirre to shine.
Players to watch (from Eugene Rupinski):
For Marathón, Colombian striker Yustin Arboleda scored a league-best 24 goals in the combined Apertura and Clausura. Marathón has also recently signed veteran forward Carlo Costly. The 36-year-old Costly is probably best known for his stints with Atlas and the Houston Dynamo, but he’s also played with Birmingham City and clubs in Poland, China, Turkey, Romania and Greece throughout his career.
For Santos, it might be best to talk about the players who might not play. Last season’s leading goalscorer Julio Furch missed Santos’ last match on Saturday against Cruz Azul. Santos has a wealth of players who could play up top in place of Furch, including Ayrton Preciado, Javier Correa, and Marlos Moreno. Preciado doubles as a winger and Correa has been partnered with Furch in Santos’ two striker system, so Moreno might get the nod in addition to the other two instead of in their place.
Prediction: Marathon is capable of giving Santos a game, and with Furch potentially missing matches, that may result in Santos lacking goals. It all comes down to who will defend better, and Santos’ defense is solid, whereas Marathon may slip and still let in goals from Correa, Aguirre, Preciado or Moreno. I have to give it to the Guerreros.
New York Red Bulls (USA) vs. Atletico Pantoja (DOM)
First Leg: Feb. 20 in Estadio Olimpico Felix Sanchez, Santo Domingo, DOM
Second Leg: Feb. 27 in Red Bull Arena, New Jersey, USA
Tale of the tape: Like Cibao FC from last year, Atletico Pantoja is another Dominican club making its debut in the Champions League who are just happy to be here, honestly. The winners of the 2018 Caribbean Club Championship, Pantoja are one of just four total champions that have been crowned in the recently formed Dominican football league, which follows an MLS-style calendar and doesn’t start its season until March.
Chris Armas took over the Red Bulls midway through last season and led them to the top of the Eastern Conference but lost to eventual champions Atlanta United in the Conference Finals. They’re a talented team that lately always manage to find themselves contending for titles, but always manage to fail in big moments, leading many to label them as a regular season team. The Northeastern club has to want to rid itself of those whispers and this first match could be great for a confidence boost before going up against bigger clubs.
Players to watch: For Pantoja, Venezuelan forward Armando Maita and Dominican forward Jonathan Faña are the men in charge of the goals up front.
Bradley Wright-Phillips is already a modern day legend in New York with 124 goals to his name in his Red Bull career. The former MetroStars also boast the MLS Defender of the Year Aaron Long and veteran Luis Robles, who is one the most solid keepers in this year’s competition.
Prediction: Barring an upset for the ages, this one easily goes to New York. Next.
Toluca (MEX) vs. Sporting Kansas City (USA)
First Leg: Feb. 21 in Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas, USA
Second Leg: Feb. 28 in Estadio Nemesio Diez, Estado de Mexico, MEX
Tale of the tape: Coming off three straight league losses, Toluca are in a tough spot right now. They have a nice roster, and brought in lots of South American talent for squad depth, but Hernan Cristante’s latest results are worrying many fans. Los Diablos Rojos are one of the most successful Mexican clubs of the twenty-first century, but for the past few years Toluca have been losing a lot of finals. The past three finals Toluca has been involved in (Liga MX, Copa MX and Champions League) have resulted in losses against Santos, Necaxa and Cruz Azul, respectively. Toluca needs something to celebrate, and that has to motivate them for this tournament.
In contrast, Sporting Kansas City are in a good spot right now. After winning the U.S. Open Cup in 2017, which qualified them for this competition, KC had something of a breakout year in 2018. Sporting set a club record for goals scored in the regular season and their momentum took them all the way to the western conference finals where they just barely lost to Portland. Peter Vermes’ side has a multitude of game-changing players and the only real question is whether they can juggle contending in two tournaments at the same time.
Players to watch: Cristante loves his Argentine players. This season, he brought in Jonatan Maidana to be a big name in the backline, Federico Mancuello to join the midfield and Emmanuel Gigliotti to score goals. All three were important figures at their former teams and we’ll see if Toluca can get it together so these players can shine.
As for KC, where to start? Ilie Sanchez and Roger Espinoza hold down the midfield, Graham Zusi is in the back, all while Johnny Russell, Felipe Gutierrez, and young prospect Daniel Salloi never stop attacking. They’re missing a clear star striker, but that shouldn’t hinder them too much for the first few fixtures.
Prediction: This might be a hot take for some, but I’m going with Kansas City. Toluca’s play so far this season doesn’t make me expect big things from Los Escarlatas. They’ll also have to deal with a brutally cold midwestern game in Kansas City in 20-30 degree weather. So yeah, Kansas City over Toluca. Book it.
Atlanta United (USA) vs. Herediano (CRC)
First Leg: Feb. 21 in Estadio Eladio Rosabal Cordero, Heredia, CRC
Second Leg: Feb. 28 in Fifth Third Bank Stadium, Georgia, USA
Tale of the tape: Herediano comes to this competition not only as the current Costa Rican league champions, but also as the winners of the 2nd annual CONCACAF League. Most outside of Costa Rica will remember Los Rojiamarillos as the team that famously beat Club America 3-0 at home in the first leg of the 2014-15 Champions League semifinals. They almost achieved the impossible, but were blown out 6-0 in the second leg by Las Aguilas. They’re back this year as they hope to once again agitate a few big clubs.
After Atlanta made history by winning the MLS Cup in just the club’s second year of existence, coach Tata Martino left to manage Mexico. In comes former Ajax manager Frank de Boer. The Dutchman did great things at the Amsterdam club and with the Dutch national team, but failed to do anything of value at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace. He faces a tough task to follow Martino but he has the players to get it done. Can Atlanta take North America just as dominantly as they did the United States?
Players to watch: Liga MX fans will surely remember Omar Pina Arellano, Edgar Gerardo Lugo and Antonio Rooney Pedroza, all of whom are at Herediano now.
As for Atlanta, you know the drill. Last season’s MLS MVP Josef Martinez is the hottest striker in North America right now. Former River Plate midfielder Pity Martinez will now try to conquer CONCACAF after conquering CONMEBOL last season by winning the Copa Libertadores, and hey, even Paul Pogba’s brother Florentin is at the club now.
Prediction: As I wrote before, Costa Rican teams can always give anyone trouble. However, Atlanta just has too much talent. Even if things don’t pan out the best for de Boer in the MLS, they should get passed Herediano here.
What are your predictions for each game? Who’s winning it all? Let us know in the comments below!
You can follow Antonio on Twitter @antonio1998__