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Friday, March 22 2019 @ 08:54 PM UTC

Champions League will determine CONCACAF's best

Sports Section By LUIS BUENO - Special to The Press-Enterprise: When it comes to national teams, CONCACAF's upper crust is well established as the United States, Mexico and Costa Rica are in a class of their own. But in terms of leagues, there hasn't been a truly effective method of sorting out the region's best before today. Today marks the official beginning of the CONCACAF Champions League, the confederation's newest and most in-depth method of sorting out a regional club champion. The tournament replaces the eight-team CONCACAF Champions Cup, which was a far cry from the new-look version. (more)

Cruz Azul's Israel Lopez (left) and Santos' Fernando Arce fight for the ball during the Mexican league championship in June. Both sides are part of the new CONCACAF Champions League.

The Champions League will look like other such club tournaments around the globe. It features four groups with four teams apiece, and each team will play the other three group members home and away. The top two teams in each group advance to the knockout rounds and a regional club champion will emerge that way.

If form holds, the Mexican league will have another one of its clubs walk away with the tournament trophy. Mexican clubs won the last three Champions Cup tournaments and have won 24 competitions since the first edition kicked off in 1962.

This time, however, the group stage may complicate things for all involved. With teams spread out from Canada to Panama, Washington, D. C., to Trinidad and Tobago, the midweek travel and games will be another challenge for teams to overcome.

How will MLS clubs fare? If qualifying was any indication, they will struggle. Chivas USA, New England and Toronto FC all failed to qualify for the tournament proper as Tauro of Panama, Trinidad's Joe Public and Canadian side Montreal went in their respective places.

Perhaps, though, other leagues in this region will flex their might internationally. Costa Rican clubs have fared well in the Champions Cup and won two consecutive tournaments earlier this decade. Maybe the Honduran or Guatemalan leagues will begin to show their worth, or it might be an unexpected nation such as Panama whose clubs will do damage in the tournament.

Probably, teams' successes or failures will come down to how much emphasis each respective side places on the tournament. With clubs across the board competing in both this tournament and their respective league campaigns, roster depth will be tested greatly.

As far as the groups go, this tournament also has a Group of Death, which is seemingly mandatory in any tournament around the world. Mexico has the most clubs in this tournament with four, one in each group, while the United States, Honduras and Panama have two teams apiece. The remaining clubs are spread out from all over the region.

A Breakdown of the Groups

GROUP A: D. C. United (United States), Saprissa (Costa Rica), Cruz Azul (Mexico), Marathon (Honduras). This is the tournament's toughest group. DC United won a CONCACAF title in 1998 but has fared poorly in recent years. Saprissa enjoys one of the best home-field advantages in the region. Cruz Azul reached the tournament with a 12-0 aggregate win in qualifying round.

GROUP B: Houston (United States), Luis Angel Firpo (El Salvador), Pumas (Mexico), San Francisco (Panama). Conventional wisdom says the MLS and Mexican teams will go through. Pumas have the best record in the current Mexican league campaign while defending two-time MLS champion Houston leads the Western Conference. But trips to El Salvador and Panama will be difficult for both Pumas and Houston.

GROUP C: Atlante (Mexico), Olimpia (Honduras), Joe Public (Trinidad and Tobago), Montreal (Canada). This is the most wide-open group in the tournament. Atlante is doing well in the Mexican league. Joe Public stunned New England with a 4-0 win in Foxborough, Mass., and may be a dark horse to win the group and make some noise in the knockout rounds. Montreal won a three-team group that produced Canada's representative. Otherwise, Group C could have featured two MLS teams.

GROUP D: Santos (Mexico), Municipal (Guatemala), Tauro (Panama), Islanders (Puerto Rico). Top heavy group. Santos are clear favorites to walk away with the group title after several strong seasons in Mexico. Islanders are seemingly a long shot; both Islanders and Montreal play in the United Soccer League, generally considered the second division in the U. S. Municipal is a local power -- 26 Guatemalan league titles -- and won CONCACAF crown in 1974.

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