Cue the music. It’s Champions League time again, baby! Both the UEFA and Concacaf versions start (or restart) this week. We only discuss North America around here, so let’s get into the preview for the first CCL of the decade.
In the past one, Liga MX clubs brought out the brooms and swept the entire 10-year period, winning every single title. Let’s see if the new year can bring out the best in the competing MLS, Central American and Caribbean clubs trying to take the crown. Here’s your 2020 Concacaf Champions League ultimate preview:
Cruz Azul (MEX) vs. Portmore United (JAM)
First Leg: Feb. 18 at Independence Park, Kingston, JAM
Second Leg: Feb. 25 at Estadio Azteca, Mexico City, MEX
Tale of the tape: La Maquina Celeste began the 2020 Liga MX season with two losses, but have since enjoyed success, beating the likes of Santos Laguna, Pachuca (with 10 men) and Chivas. Cruz Azul, given its history, always needs to reward its hungry fanbase with any and every title they can while they languish in a Liga MX title drought. That alone will push the squad in every game they play.
The current Jamaican league champions are seeking to defend their title as they head into their nation’s playoffs in the next few weeks. Unfortunately for them, they were also most recently trounced 4-0 by Dominican side Atletico Pantoja in the Caribbean Club Championship and sit bottom of their group with no points. Led on the sidelines by one the most decorated Jamaican players in history, Ricardo Gardner’s men will play their most important games ever against Cruz Azul.
Players to watch: Elias Hernandez, Jonathan Rodriguez and Yoshimar Yotun share star power with Cruz Azul, but the most exciting player to watch in this competition will be Santiago Gimenez. A club legacy, son of former captain Christian Gimenez, who won this tournament with La Maquina in 2014, Santiago is finding his form at the right time and should come up big for the team in some games.
For Portmore, Jamaican international forward Rondee Smith serves as the catalyst of Ricardo Gardner’s attack.
Prediction: Portmore did well winning a double last season to qualify, but its poor start to the Caribbean Club Championship makes it look like the team has lost a step. They already couldn’t afford anything but their best for this matchup, so for that, Cruz Azul should win handily here. No problems at all.
Motagua (HON) vs. Atlanta United (USA)
First Leg: Feb. 18 at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula, HON
Second Leg: Feb. 25 at Fifth Third Bank Stadium, Georgia, USA
Tale of the tape: Like a few Central American/Caribbean clubs this year, Motagua will be playing its games at Honduras’ national stadium while its home ground is being renovated. Diego Vasquez’s side sits atop the Honduran table currently with the most goals scored (18) while also conceding the least (six) after eight games. El Ciclon Azul loves to attack at will and present a good challenge to any team. A poll from Honduran sports media outlet, Diario Deportivo Diez, shows most people think they’ll take the win over Atlanta, so the fans are clearly confident.
Atlanta is one of more intimidating MLS sides, but this offseason wasn’t kind to them. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez left for Tijuana, Darlington Nagbe wanted a trade out and got one, Hector Villalba went back to Paraguay and Julian Gressel was traded to DC United. Frank de Boer’s side managed some good replacements; Brooks Lennon, Edgar Castillo, Matheus Rosetto and Fernando Meza are some big names, but overall the team just looks a bit weaker than they have in previous terms.
Players to watch: Both of Motagua’s fullbacks: the iconic Emilio Izaguirre, of Celtic fame, and Felix Crisanto, who Liga MX fans may remember from his time at Lobos BUAP, defend well and even score a couple goals here and there. The wings are important for a team who will look to counterattack.
This one’s easy. Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco is the three-headed monster all should fear. If I had to pick one, it would have to be Josef. He’s done it all for Atlanta and should continue to serve as The Five Stripes’ hero for this tournament.
Prediction: This one is tougher than it looks. Like I said before, Atlanta has seen better days, and Honduras will prove to be a very tough environment against a team at the top of their game currently. It’ll come to down to what happens in Kennesaw. I think Atlanta just takes the win by one or two goals. A surprise Motagua win isn’t out of the question though.
Leon (MEX) vs. Los Angeles FC (USA)
First Leg: Feb. 18 at Estadio Leon, Guanajuato, MEX
Second Leg: Feb. 27 at Banc of California Stadium, California, USA
Tale of the tape: Los Panzas Verdes have been a force in Liga MX for the past three seasons under Ignacio Ambriz, but have no silverware to show for it as of yet. I’m sure they’d rather have the Liga MX, but a CCL title will still be extremely welcomed by the fans, especially considering it’s only Leon’s third time in this competition. There are few other teams in this field who are more excited to play this tournament than Leon when you look at the club’s social media, and that should tell you this team is ready to fight until the end.
It seems like it was only yesterday when LAFC was running amok across the entire MLS with Carlos Vela at the forefront. Vela enjoyed a historic individual year, shattering the single-season goal scoring record (34) while the team finished with the best record in the league before an untimely and surprising exit from the playoffs in the Western Conference Finals. The first leg will serve as the Mexican Vela’s first official club game in his home country and this matchup looks like one for the ages.
Players to watch: Before the start of the Clausura, Angel Mena made a promise to himself and the public that he will be Liga MX’s top goalscorer at the end of the season. He’s made good on that promise so far with a league-best five goals in six games. He’s a game changer and Leon’s best chance at winning the whole thing.
Carlos Vela. That’s it. That’s the sentence. Okay, fine. Apart from the Mexican superstar, the young Colombian Eduard Atuesta pulls the strings from the midfield and sets up the biggest plays for the Angelino side.
Prediction: For our sake, let’s hope this series comes through and entertains throughout. It’s one of the toughest Round of 16 matchups of the past few editions to predict, but I think Leon will be the team to make the quarterfinals. We say it every year, but LAFC not having a single official game under its belt yet in 2020 will hurt the team. Especially considering they will have to debut in a raucous stadium like Leon’s, where the first leg will be played in.
Saprissa (CRC) vs. Montreal Impact (CAN)
First Leg: Feb. 19 at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, San Jose, CRC
Second Leg: Feb. 26 at Olympic Stadium, Quebec, CAN
Tale of the tape: El Monstruo Morado are three-time winners of this competition and the most recent champions that weren’t Mexican (2005). Saprissa have quality all over the pitch, and despite selling off its best player in Randall Leal to Nashville SC, the club is still left with plenty of talent to get the job done. They’re characterized by their defense this season, and they will be difficult to break down at home as they haven’t lost a game at Ricardo Saprissa since November of last year.
The Impact won the Canadian Championship to qualify for this, but actually underachieved quite a bit in MLS play. They didn’t qualify for the playoffs and lost star player Ignacio Piatti to San Lorenzo. The good news? They have a world football legend on the sidelines in Thierry Henry. Granted, the former Arsenal man hasn’t enjoyed a great managerial career thus far, but can North America be the region where he becomes a top gaffer?
Players to watch: Saprissa’s defense highlights the squad and goalkeeper Kevin Briceño is one of Costa Rica’s best. The 28-year-old is nominated for keeper of the year in his home country and should be a menacing presence for Walter Centeno’s team in between the sticks.
Henry’s old Barcelona teammate, Bojan Krkic, is the biggest name on the roster for Montreal, but the player that can possibly turn some heads is Haitian midfielder Steeven Saba, also known as the Haitian Carlos Vela, because of his uncanny resemblance to the Mexican forward. He impressed with Haiti at last year’s Gold Cup and Impact fans will hope for the same Saba to show up down in Costa Rica.
Prediction: There has to be at least one hot take, right? Here we go. I think Saprissa take this one. It’ll be pretty close, but I don’t think Montreal has enough talent to dispel of a hungry, gritty Central American side. Pardon, Thierry. Pardon, Montreal.
Tigres UANL (MEX) vs. Alianza FC (SLV)
First Leg: Feb. 19 at Estadio Cuscatlan, San Salvador, SLV
Second Leg: Feb. 26 at Estadio Universitario, Nuevo Leon, MEX
Tale of the tape: Boasting one of the most expensive rosters in North America, riddled with players who have passed through European football, it’s that much more of a surprise to learn how much Tigres is struggling in the league. Sitting in 10th place with seven points, Ricardo Ferretti’s squad still hasn’t shown even a glimpse of what they can do at their best. The Nuevo Leon club are three-time CCL runners-up, having lost last year to bitter rivals Monterrey in the final, and despite their five Liga MX titles last decade, have never won a regional championship. Can this be the year?
In Tigres’ way is the only undefeated Salvadoran champion in history: Alianza. One of only three Salvadoran CCL champions ever, Los Paquidermos impressed many with their honorable Round of 16 showing against eventual champions Monterrey in last year’s edition, falling just 1-0 after two legs. They have a second chance this year to eliminate another Liga MX giant and shock the North American soccer world.
Players to watch: Most of Tigres’ offensive players can play a key role in any game, but keep an eye on Nicolas “Diente” Lopez. The Uruguayan winger signed with Tigres in the offseason with a lot of hype from Brazilian club Internacional and, like the team, has yet to show his best form in Mexico. The CCL might just be the tournament where he shines.
For Alianza, the stars lie in the midfield. Salvadoran internationals Oscar Ceren and Marvin Monterroza, who was named El Salvador’s best mid last season, can create countless opportunities to score and serve as the Central American club’s best chance at getting by Tigres’ lock-down defense.
Prediction: I underestimated Alianza last season and they nearly made me regret it. I sit here today officially writing that they can pull off an upset, why not? However, the club sits seventh in the Salvadoran league with only two wins and nine goals conceded after seven games. Not exactly the best record considering the types of attackers they are about to meet in Mexico. For that reason, I’m giving it to Tigres.
Club America (MEX) vs. Comunicaciones (GUA)
First Leg: Feb. 19 at Estadio Doroteo Guamuch Flores, Guatemala City, GUA
Second Leg: Feb. 26 at Estadio Azteca, Mexico City, MEX
Tale of the tape: Las Aguilas should be near the bottom of the Liga MX table. The first few weeks of the season saw the America roster plagued with injuries, selling off their most important piece in Guido Rodriguez, waiting for the arrivals of new signings and having to deal with star players out on Olympic international duty. And yet, despite all those setbacks, Miguel Herrera’s side is in second place, having only lost once and with the best defensive record in the country. Unreal. The resilience and depth that the squad has shown so far in 2020 means good things for the CCL and bad things for anyone standing in their way.
30-time Guatemalan league champions Comunicaciones are once again atop the table in their home country this season. Los Cremas will come face to face with Club America, having faced each other back in the 2014-15 edition in the group stage. That year, Comunicaciones managed to draw with America at home before losing 2-0 at the Azteca in the second leg. Not a bad showing at all from the Central American club against a team that would go on to win the whole thing. The question is can they hold their own again and possibly sneak away from Mexico City with a good result?
Players to watch: We still haven’t seen the debuts of two of America’s winter signings, so in that case, keep watch on both Sebastian Caceres and Santiago Caseres. Same last names but spelled different ways, the Uruguayan Caceres is a quality backup center back destined to start CCL games, while the Argentine Caseres was brought in to carry the load of the Real Betis-bound Guido Rodriguez as a holding mid.
In the backline for Comunicaciones, Gerardo Gordillo was named to the Concacaf League best XI for his defensive exploits. Meanwhile, up front, new signing Bladimir Diaz was brought in from Alianza and already has four goals in seven games for the club.
Prediction: There’s almost no feasible way Club America lose this one. It will surely be the surprise of the tournament, but I’m pretty confident in saying that won’t happen. Las Aguilas just have too much going for them. Even a squad full of backups can get the job done, as we’ve seen, and Comunicaciones will have to be perfect to manage a win.
San Carlos (CRC) vs. New York City FC (USA)
First Leg: Feb. 20 at Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto, Alajuela, CRC
Second Leg: Feb. 26 at Red Bull Arena, New Jersey, USA
Tale of the tape: Making its debut in the CCL is Costa Rican overachievers San Carlos. Los Toros del Norte were in the second tier of Costa Rican football just two years ago but had a dream end to the decade, winning their first top-flight title and made it to the quarterfinals of the Concacaf League. Can they start 2020 with the same zeal?
Due to Yankee Stadium and Citi Field “undergoing unavoidable winterization procedures,” NYCFC is forced to play this first round on their crosstown rival’s home turf. Inconveniences aside, Ronny Delia’s team comes from a stellar 2019 MLS season where they topped the Eastern Conference before dropping out of the conference semifinals. They made absolutely no important offseason moves (besides a head coaching change), which can be a bad or good thing depending on how you look at it. This is the exact same team as last season, so if you know them, you know what to expect: building attacks from the back, lots of movement, lots of passing.
Players to watch: During last year’s CCL, Omar Browne lit up the scene with Panamanian club Independiente, leading to a loan move to the Montreal Impact last season. His parent club recalled him back and now has loaned him to San Carlos. Toros fans will hope he can replicate the form he showed one year ago against an opponent he’s already familiar with.
Leon fans will remember Maxi Moralez, who is now setting up the goals for NYCFC. Beside him in the middle of the park is 22-year-old Keaton Parks (see what I did there?) who was one of the more talked about young players in MLS last season.
Prediction: It’s like deja vu. A recently promoted team making its debut in the CCL has defeated an MLS club before. Independiente ran up the score on Toronto FC last year, beating them 5-1 on aggregate. They also had Omar Browne. Do I think it’s going to happen again? Yes. I’m sorry, MLS fans, but let’s have some fun and cheer on the underdog here. San Carlos wins.
Seattle Sounders (USA) vs. Olimpia (HON)
First Leg: Feb. 20 at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula, HON
Second Leg: Feb. 27 at CenturyLink Field, Washington, USA
Tale of the tape: No one expected it, but Seattle managed to get to the MLS Cup final last season and win its second title in four years. That goes to show you that you should never underestimate this team. No matter the regular season form, they put in work during postseasons and knockout competitions. It’s hard to bet against their attacking players as well.
Los Leones are widely known as the most popular team from Honduras and currently hold the league title in their country. Two-time winners of this competition, Olimpia are hoping to make it to the final to the first in two decades, the last time coming in 2000. They sit in third place on the Honduran league table this season after eight games, just five points behind leaders Motagua.
Players to watch: Liga MX fans should remember former Morelia striker Raul Ruidiaz, who won the Mexican scoring title twice and now bats them in for fun in Seattle. American international Jordan Morris also came up big during the last MLS playoffs, so expect him to continue doing so when he plays.
For Olimpia, there are a couple familar faces that both Liga MX and MLS watchers might remember. Former Lobos BUAP midfielder Michaell Chirinos is an important piece. Beside him is former Philadelphia Union and Houston Dynamo player Cristian Maidana. Up front, New England Revolution fans will be familar with former striker Jerry Bengtson.
Prediction: If Seattle can get it done in single-elimination games, logic would tell you that two legs should be no problem. Key word should. But still, I think Seattle has what it takes to slide past Olimpia in the Round of 16.
What are your predictions? Let us know in the comments below!
You can follow Antonio on Twitter @antonio1998__