The knockout stage of the CONCACAF Champions League begins tonight. The Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy will be among the eight teams competing for the right to be called the region’s best team. The tournament winner also secures a spot in the 2013 Club World Cup.
In previous years, the tournament has been dominated by Mexican teams. Since the adoption of a group stage format in 2008-09, Real Salt Lake is the only non-Mexican team to reach the final. RSL lost in 2011 to Monterrey – winner of the last two tournaments. Only four non-Mexican teams have ever even reached the semi-finals with Toronto FC being the other MLS team to do so.
Could this be the year a team from Major League Soccer finally wins the tournament?
Houston Dynamo v. Santos Laguna
The Houston Dynamo and Santos Laguna will get things started with the first leg of the quarterfinals at BBVA Compass Stadium (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET).
The Dynamo have a formidable home record – 31 straight unbeaten in all competitions – and opened the MLS season by easily defeating D.C. United 2-0 on Saturday.
Santos, which lost to Monterrey in the Champions League final last year, has never won a regional championship. Led by U.S. international Herculez Gomez, Santos is hungry for success and has placed a high priority on winning the tournament.
Santos has been stingy this season in Liga MX, giving up only six goals in nine matches this year. However, the offense has not been quite as potent as in previous years.
MLS teams have closed the gap but still have never defeated a Mexican team in a two-match series in the Champions League. Houston might have the best shot, but winning at home is essential.
Tigres UANL v. Seattle Sounders
In the quarterfinals last year, the Seattle Sounders defeated Santos Laguna 2-1 at home before losing 6-1 in Mexico. The Sounders will obviously need a much better away performance this week when they travel to Tigres UANL (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET).
Tigres leads Liga MX with six wins and three draws after nine matches. Meanwhile, the Sounders were stunned at home by the Montreal Impact on Saturday in their first MLS game of the year.
Seattle may have caught a bit of a break as Tigres’ leading scorer, Emanuel Villa, has been ruled out for the next four to five weeks with a calf injury. He has scored eight of Tigres’ 19 goals this season.
Even without Villa, the challenge remains difficult for a Sounders team that remains in flux. Christian Tiffert’s contract was bought out with the expectation that a new designated player will be signed, but fans are still waiting to see whether a deal can be reached for Levante striker Obafemi Martins to join.
The Sounders will also get a boost from the return of midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, who missed Saturday’s match due to suspension.
Herediano v. LA Galaxy
At least on the surface, the LA Galaxy got the most favorable draw with a series against Costa Rican side Herediano.
The two-time defending MLS champions will start on the road (Thursday, 5 p.m. ET). Concerns about David Beckham’s departure and Landon Donovan’s hiatus were eased on Sunday with the Galaxy’s dominating 4-0 win against the Chicago Fire.
Both teams went undefeated in the group stage. The Galaxy were expected to so, while Herediano’s success was a bit more surprising.
Herediano is fifth in Costa Rica’s 12-team league, while Saprissa and Alajuelense have been the dominant teams from Costa Rica. Herediano finished last in their group in 2011 – the club’s first appearance in the Champions League – but surprisingly qualified for the quarterfinals ahead of Real Salt Lake this year.
The team’s win and draw against RSL should provide confidence heading into the series with LA. Yendrick Ruiz is also the league’s top scorer with six goals.
Xelajú v. Monterrey
Xelajú pulled off what is likely the biggest surprise in CONCACAF Champions League history by reaching the quarterfinals ahead of Chivas de Guadalajara. The Guatemalan team defeated Chivas 1-0 at home and lost 2-1 in Mexico but still managed to advance thanks to the crucial away goals.
The next challenge should be far more difficult with Monterrey looking to shrug off poor form in Liga MX. The teams first face off in Guatemala (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET). Monterrey is 14th out of 18 teams in the league this year and has surprisingly struggled to score goals.
Despite those struggles, the Mexican team is heavily favored to advance. Monterrey has shown an ability to perform well in the tournament even when struggling in league play.