28 September 2012

Why all of the final CCL matches matter

Houston could play the second leg of a quarterfinal at
BBVA Compass Stadium, depending on goal differential
The group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League - contested for the first time in eight groups of three - is down to one remaining round of matches, to be played October 23-25. Three teams have clinched their spots in the quarterfinals, but even those three teams need to be on their game next month. Here's why.

One of the changes to the competition is that matchups in the quarterfinals (and beyond) are now determined by performance in the group stage, rather than by random draw. This is an underrated move by CONCACAF, in my opinion. Yes, the teams are being compared against unequal opponents; is it really fair to reward teams that go 4-0 against a group that included a Caribbean or weak Central American opponent? But the move is worth that question because (a) it legitimizes a competition that sometimes seemed to be fixed to get at least one American team to the semifinals and (b) it makes every minute of the group stage count.

Seeding in the knockout round is very important, because the higher seed gets the second leg at home, usually a big advantage. This is far from the only reason Mexican clubs have dominated American ones in head-to-head competition, but the second leg has been in Mexico more often than not. This time, they'll have to earn it.

So here's how the race for home-field advantage in the elimination round shapes up. Projected seeds are how I think the teams will finish, not their current spot:

Proj SeedTeamRecordGDLast Game
(Almost) clinched
1Santos Laguna3-0+1110/24 vs. Toronto
ORToronto FC2-1+510/24 at Santos Laguna
2Monterrey3-0+910/23 at Chorrillo
3Seattle Sounders3-0+510/24 vs. Marathon
4LA Galaxy2-0-1+710/25 at Metapan
Battling it out
5Houston Dynamo2-0-1+610/23 vs. Olimpia
OROlimpia1-1-1+210/23 at Houston
6Real Salt Lake2-1+210/23 vs. Herediano
ORHerediano3-0+310/23 at Real Salt Lake
7Tigres1-0-2+410/24 vs. Alajuelense
ORAlajuelense2-0-1+410/24 at Tigres
8Chivas1-1-1+310/25 vs. Xelaju
ORXelaju2-0-1+210/25 at Chivas

Head-to-head matchups will determine the final five spots (CONCACAF may have a history of corruption, but the people running do not miss a chance for drama, pairing two powers in the final match of each group), but you can see where this is going. If the home teams prevail with the results they need, we'll get the Mexican/U.S. quarterfinals, but the matchups would play out to something like this:

1. Santos Laguna vs. 8 Chivas Guadalajara
2. Monterrey vs. 7 Tigres
3. Seattle Sounders vs. 6 Real Salt Lake
4. LA Galaxy vs. 5 Houston Dynamo

Of course, that's taking a lot for granted. Five teams still need to take care of business just to advance. But the point is that they need to focus not just on doing enough to advance; they need to be worried about their quarterfinal seed. Santos cannot afford to tie Toronto at home; a win would secure them the top seed. Seattle cannot afford to be on cruise control against Marathon; they have an outside chance of catching Monterrey for the all-important No. 2 seed, which could give them a home game in the semifinals.

Real Salt Lake, Tigres, and Chivas will all be trying just to get the win that will send them to the quarterfinals (RSL needs to win 1-0 or by multiple goals), and Houston needs just a tie at home against Olimpia. Given its precarious MLS playoff position, the Dynamo will probably put out a mixed squad, but winning and tacking on a few goals should still be a priority in an attempt to wrest the second leg of a potential quarterfinal matchup away from recent rival LA. After all, Houston's last two playoff outings have ended at The Home Depot Center.

The new format of the Champions League has its positives and negatives, but there is something to play for in all eight of the final matches, and we could be in store for the most storied quarterfinalists in the tournament's short history.

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