Anyone who likes solving puzzles should go ahead and try to predict who will make up the 2020 Concacaf Champions League final four.
Each quarterfinal tie is overtly tricky to call for multi-layered reasons. For starters, MLS sides are only two weeks into their new league season, going up against foes approaching mid-season form. At the same time, key injuries and other absences have taken a big chunk out of both teams in three of the two-leg series.
You get the idea. Picking the four winners is clearly a fool's game. And right on cue, I'm here to play.
New York City FC
vs. Tigres UANL (Mexico)
Leg 1: March 11 / Leg 2: March 17
This is a real head-scratcher. Both teams are essentially fit and complete, but neither is hitting their expected stride. Tigres still possess that scary roster, but have largely been uninspiring in 2020. On the other hand, NYCFC have been consistently a shade off through the first four games of their campaign. Heck, their best performance might have been in the game where they went down to 10 men a mere moment after kickoff.
Prediction: I keep going back and forth on this one. Whichever team reaches top gear first should reach the semis. If it seems like I'm stalling instead of making a call, well, you're astute. Okay, fine... I'll give NYCFC benefit of doubt that they can take advantage of a partially toothless Tigres. The Cityzens come out on top of a 2-2 aggregate scoreline on the strength of the only away goal of the tie.
vs. Club America (Mexico)
Leg 1: March 11 / Leg 2: March 18
Good ol' Herculez Gomez hit the nail on the head like his hammer was laser-targeted: Las Aguilas were so very ripe to be beaten by Atlanta United, right up until Josef Martinez felt that awful pop in his knee on MLS opening day. That's not to say that Frank de Boer's boys have no chance of winning this tie (after all, Club America are currently operating without Nicolas Benedetti, NicolasCastillo and Renato Ibarra, while Roger Martínez isn't 90-minutes fit). But geez, it's a mighty huge ask.
Prediction: Honestly, I'd love to back Atlanta to pull out an emotional triumph ... if only they could count on top defenders Franco Escobar and Miles Robinson. But they can't, so I won't. Grave realism tells me that the Five Stripes will fall behind at Azteca, and then not have the guns to catch up. Club America wins it 4-2 on aggregate.
vs. Cruz Azul (Mexico)
Leg 1: March 12 / Leg 2: March 18
The Supporters' Shield holders don't look like a team doing an early-in-the-campaign search for their game. They already look out for blood. And though Cruz Azul stand tops in Liga MX, they enter Wednesday's opener missing veteran leaders on every line. The key duo of Pablo Aguilar and Milton Caraglio have now been joined on the shelf by Igor Lichnovsky and former Orlando City midfielder Yoshi Yotun. If Bob Bradley had even one of his veteran center forwards available for this bout, tabbing LAFC would be even easier.
Prediction: Cruz Azul won't be an easy out, even with a second choice spine. Still, you're not going to catch me betting against Vela, Bradley and LAFC. Nuh uh. After starting off with a comprehensive victory in the home ice-breaker, the Black and Gold take this duel by a 5-2 count.
vs. Olimpia (Honduras)
Leg 1: MTL 1-2 OLI / Leg 2: March 17
***UPDATE: Even after Olimpia's shock 2-1 win in Montreal in Leg 1 on Tuesday, Greg Seltzer's pre-quarterfinal prediction is still very much on track.
Starting with Tuesday's home leg, the Montreal Impact will try to avoid becoming Olimpia's second straight MLS victim. Thierry Henry will need to go without Rudy Camacho, Lassi Lappalainen and skipper Jukka Raitala, but he's not the only manager drawing up a Plan B. Injured Olimpia skipper Ever Alvarado will miss both games, while central defense partner Jhonatan Paz (visa troubles) and Sounders-killing attacker Yustin Arboleda (yellow card ban) will be back home watching the opener on TV.
Prediction: Gosh, this Montreal team is tough to figure. Just when you think they're in trouble, they pull a rabbit from the hat. Just when you think they have everything under control, they implode in a flash. Not to make the folks at Stade Saputo nervous, but I feel like the Impact can manage to score advancement. Since they tend to do things the hard way, I'll go with a late away goal pushing the tie to 3-3 and spot kicks, where they avenge Seattle's ouster.