Concacaf Champions League is a blast, even when it stings.
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you too have #CCLFever, so I’ll set aside the elevator pitch this time around – especially because this week’s quartet of matches epitomized the chaos and emotion of this somehow-still-underappreciated tournament.
We’re now down to the final four survivors, two apiece from MLS and Liga MX. The bracket guarantees a Mexico-US final via a Seattle Sounders vs. New York City FC semifinal on one side and Pumas UNAM vs. Cruz Azul on the other, ties that will unfold next month ahead of the two-legged final in late April and early May.
Here’s what went down at the business end of the quarterfinals.
NYCFC strut, then sweat
First off: The Cityzens have booked passage to the Champions League semifinals for the first time in their history, and they did so without being able to play either of their home matches at, well, their home, Yankee Stadium, which Concacaf has not approved as a venue.
Shrugging off that challenge – and the many thousands of air miles they’ve logged this spring, with stops in Costa Rica, California, Guatemala, Vancouver and back to New York, not to mention preseason camp in Mexico – is a laudable achievement.
Nevertheless, the ignominious end to their series with Comunicaciones takes a good chunk out of the Pigeons’ CCL hype. After a 3-1 win in their “home” leg at Rentschler Field in Connecticut, they jetted south to Guatemala City in good shape, then looked just about locked in when they took a 2-1 lead after halftime in Leg 2. A 5-2 aggregate lead with two away goals and just over half an hour to kill off? Done and dusted, right?
Then the wheels came off.
Ronny Deila made a quadruple substitution at the hour mark, which made sense on paper in terms of saving legs and managing minutes. But it certainly didn’t work out in practice, as La Crema reeled off three goals in 20 minutes to reignite their home crowd and tie the series on aggregate, forcing NYC to cling for dear life to their away-goals tiebreaker until the final whistle bailed them out.
“It was a really good learning lesson for how to act in these kind of games when you need to defend and suffer and get through things,” said Deila postgame, expressing gratitude that his young players in particular got a sobering experience without paying for it with CCL elimination.
“In the end, we got scared.”
The Pigeons – whose home venue for the semifinals has not yet been confirmed – probably won’t get away with such slackness against the Sounders. Speaking of which...
Seattle put on a clinic
No one in this year’s MLS contingent has more CCL pedigree than the Sounders, and the Rave Green showed it in their handling of Club Leon. The eight-time Mexican champs boast plenty of attacking quality and carried the advantage of the second leg on home turf, only to be thoroughly defeated 4-1 on aggregate by the cleverness and efficiency of Brian Schmetzer and his squad.
Seattle were breathtakingly clinical in the first leg at Lumen Field, readily conceding the bulk of possession to Leon yet showing purpose and menace on their selective forays forward.
With both Nico Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz sidelined by injury, Schmetzer clearly decided that trying to out-tiki-taka La Fiera was a non-starter. So they feasted on speedy transitions, Fredy Montero bagging a first-half brace before man-of-the-match Cristian Roldan fed Jordan Morris for a crucial last-minute third goal, while 16-year-old Obed Vargas continued to do work in central midfield.
And they were just as intelligent in Leg 2, even with young defender Jackson Ragen deputizing for the injured Yeimar Gomez Andrade. Shifting to a 5-4-1 shape to soak up Leon’s pressure, Seattle fended off a barrage of crosses then broke out to earn, then convert (Montero, again) a back-breaking penalty kick on the stroke of halftime that made for a much less stressful second half.
“I thought the tactics were spot-on. We knew Leon is a very good team. We knew they were going to try and cross a bunch of balls, if you watched against New England what happened, it was the same process. So adding a third center back in there, I think was the correct decision,” said Schmetzer postgame. “Again, it's just testament to the guys’ strength of character. The first half we were defending for long periods of time. But I knew we were going to get those one or two or three quality chances, and we were able to score one and that effectively put the game out of reach.”
Even with NYCFC hosting the second leg, the Sounders should be firm favorites to reach their first-ever CCL final.
New England… don’t
To borrow Schmetzer’s phrase, if you watched what happened to New England – well, you witnessed one of the greatest collapses in the history of a competition which has seen plenty of them. The Revolution traveled to Mexico City in much the same position as Seattle, having thumped Pumas UNAM 3-0 in the snowy first leg at Gillette Stadium, only to faceplant in epic fashion at the Estadio Olímpico Universitario.
The Revs took a curiously passive posture, yet remained arrayed in the 4-4-2 diamond they’ve used this year, and Pumas wasted no time in tilting the field in their favor. Juan Dinenno struck in the 32nd minute to send hope surging through their veins, then broke through again shortly after halftime to raise Pumas’ tails even further as the MLSers gasped in the thin, smoggy air.
When Real Salt Lake product Sebastian Saucedo beat Earl Edwards Jr. not long after to level the series at 3-3 on aggregate, Los Felinos’ triumph felt inevitable, and sure enough, they would best New England on penalties to cap an epic comeback.
The Revs were unlucky to be robbed of the core of their backline as goalkeeper Matt Turner and center backs Henry Kessler and Andrew Farrell were out injured. Still, Bruce Arena’s decision to carry on as normal in their usual shape with Omar Gonzalez and Jon Bell – the latter making his career CCL debut – at center back was questionable to say the least, as were his adjustments, or lack thereof, to stem the tide. The pace and directness of someone like Tajon Buchanan, now at Belgium's Club Brugge, was also badly missed.
It all drew unhappy parallels to Arena’s costly complacency in the US men’s national team’s infamous World Cup qualifying disaster five years ago vs. Trinidad & Tobago in Couva, where he played the exact same lineup and formation as he had in their previous match vs. Panama and duly suffered a shock upset that crashed the United States out of Russia 2018.
Montréal run out of gas
Cruz Azul entered this year’s CCL with perhaps the most talent-laden roster in the tournament, a traditional Liga MX heavyweight with all the necessary ingredients to win their seventh Concacaf crown. So La Maquina were always going to be a favorite to dispatch CF Montréal, even if the Quebec club were outstanding in their Round of 16 upset of Santos Laguna.
And that’s what happened. In the end, there was too much institutional weight in the Mexicans’ favor against a CFM group that needed everything to break in their favor in order to survive, and whose roster still looks short of a few high-end contributors.
Montréal were thoroughly outplayed in the first leg at Estadio Azteca, only to get bailed out by Cruz Azul’s poor finishing in a 1-0 final that left the door cracked for a second-leg rally at Stade Olympique. The problem with that was it required the Canadians to keep things tight and get the aggregate level in order to spark their and their home fans’ hopes.
A cascade of errors in the dying moments of the first half – always a disastrous time to concede – snuffed all that out. The sequence started with a badly misplaced pass out of the back by Ismael Koné, the 19-year-old who’s played beyond his years for Montréal this spring but showed his age this week. Kone was then unable to prevent Ángel Romero from delivering an early cross into the CFM penalty box, where Alistair Johnston misread the ball’s flight, allowing Uriel Antuna an uncontested first-time finish.
The away goal spelled doom for Wilfried Nancy’s side, who eventually leveled via Rudy Camacho but far too little, too late. It wasn’t that they lacked possession or opportunities, moreso that Nancy’s methodical principles of play just weren’t executed with the speed or interplay needed to break down Cruz Azul.
Perhaps the writing was on the wall when Pablo Aguilar got away with a mere yellow card for a cynical clothesline move on Romell Quioto, a crude foul that easily could have drawn a game-changing red card. This was a bridge too far for a Montréal side that's valiant but clearly not yet running at full bore.