The semifinal round of the CONCACAF Champions League is here. Two Liga MX sides go head-to-head against two Major League Soccer sides to determine who moves on to this year’s FIFA Club World Cup.
Vancouver Whitecaps (#1) vs. Tigres UANL (#4)
1st Leg - 3/14 @ Tigres UANL (9pm CST)
2nd Leg - 4/5 @ Vancouver Whitecaps (9pm CST)
How they got here: Albeit for the wrong reasons (its MLS season was an unmitigated disaster), the Whitecaps played the group stage perfectly. The team managed to get maximum points and the 1st overall seed, even though it wasn’t very good. Vancouver won its group because it consistently put out a strong lineup, while Sporting Kansas City tried to get by in the same group with a reserve team and fell flat.
In the lead up to the CCL Quarterfinals, the Whitecaps opted to spend their preseason in Wales. While they mostly played reserve or U23 sides, their opposition was in midseason form, and it forced Vancouver to adjust to a faster pace than a normal preseason could afford them. Vancouver used the same exact starting 11 in all Welsh games, and followed up their trip to Wales by participating in the Timbers preseason tournament.
Their preseason preparation paid off, as the Whitecaps simply dominated the seemingly more talented New York Red Bulls on their way to a 3-1 aggregate victory and a semifinal date against Tigres UANL.
Current league standing, and team form: Vancouver came out of the gate fast, they followed their domination of the New York Red Bulls, by earning a draw at home in the first game of the season. They then jumped out to an early two goal lead on the road against San Jose Earthquakes this past Saturday. That’s when the wheels fell off, as starting goalkeeper David Ousted was issued a red card in the 27th minute of the match. The Whitecaps would go on to lose the game 3-2. A stark reminder that Vancouver is not too far removed from being the one of the worst team in the MLS just a season ago.
Vancouver will need to avoid game changing mistakes, like the one in San Jose, if they are even have a chance to survive their Semifinals series against Tigres, let alone lift the CCL trophy.
The player to watch: Alphonso Davies
I was going to select “The Bug” Christian Techera, who is currently second in CCL scoring with five goals, or recently added Brek Shea. The fact is, you simply can’t ignore the 16-year old phenom. Not only has Davies already forced his way into the Vancouver starting lineup, but he’s simply electrifying to watch:
Davies displays the composure of a veteran player, and the aggressive manner he displays against opponents on the field, is infectious. Davies has a combination of size, speed, ball control, and smarts, that teams simply can’t deal with. Davies scored a goal against New York Red Bulls, and simply tortured them throughout their series.
How they got here: Tigres won their group, but suffered a stunning defeat in Panama, against Plaza Amador. The loss was but a minor hick-up, as Tucca Ferretti’s team romped to the Apertura Title (Fall Title) and the Apertura Championship.
Tigres boasts one of the most talented squads in the Americas, and that talent was on full display as they dismantled fellow Liga MX side Pumas on their way to a 4-1 aggregate CCL Quarterfinals win.
With super star players like Andre-Pierre Gignac, Eduardo Vargas, and Jurgen Damm to name a few. Tigres is the clear cut favorite to lift the CCL trophy.
Current league standing, and team form: Tigres may have a star studded lineup, but they have sleep walked through the Clausura Tournament so far. They are a sleeping dragon, and their 12th place standing in the Clausura Table, is indicative of that. This is a team that many feel can “flip the switch” at any time, and destroy teams if they so chose to.
The sleeping dragon shows signs of stirring, as they are currently on a five-game unbeaten stretch across all competitions. In that 5 game stretch, Tigres has scored 10 total goals, compared to the previous six matches before the current stretch, where Tigres was held scoreless in five out of six matches. If the sleeping dragon has indeed awaken, then expect Tigres to leave a path of devastation on their way to claiming the CCL Trophy.
The player to watch: Jurgen Damm
It’s hard to chose a single player from a team with star players at every position. So let’s focus on the player that has keyed the current run of form, with three goals and one assist in the last five games. Jurgen Damm is considered one of the fastest players in the whole world, and can mesmerize opponents with his dizzying speed and array of skills on the ball. Speed kills, and if Tigres lifts the CCL trophy, don’t be surprised if Jurgen Damm is the weapon of choice for dispatching it’s foes:
FC Dallas (#7) vs. CD Pachuca (#3)
1st Leg - 3/15 @ FC Dallas (7pm CST)
2nd Leg - 4/4 @ CD Pachuca (9pm CST)
How they got here: Pachuca cruised through their group play, and only a draw at Honduran powerhouse Olympia, after a stunning last second goal, prevented “Los Tuzos” from claiming the #1 seed going into the Knockout Stage.
Pachuca faced Saprissa in the Quarterfinals, a Costa Rican side that had been gutted of most of their best talent in the January Transfer window. Pachuca had little trouble dispatching of their watered down opponent.
Current league standing, and team form: Los Tuzos (Gophers) simply boast the best team defense in all of CONCACAF. They have allowed a combined seven goals over 11 matches. Their back four, which includes Omar Gonzales of the USMNT, has simply stifled any attack that they’ve encountered. Keyed by their formidable defense, Pachuca currently sits tied atop the Liga MX table.
If Pachuca has a weakness, then look no further than their attack. While boasting formidable players across their attacking third, Pachuca has struggled to generate consistent offensive output for the better part of the Clausura. The team had only generated 12 goals over 10 games, at the time that this happened:
The gruesome injury, has sidelined Pachuca’s most dangerous player for the next three to four weeks. “Chucky” Lozano had accounted for a full third of Pachuca’s goals at the time of his injury.
Don’t let Pachuca’s offensive limitations fool you, it hasn’t slowed them down one bit, as they are in the midst of an eight game unbeaten streak. Their Liga MX counterparts (Tigres) may very well be the favorites based on overall talent, but there is no better team in this year’s tournament, than Los Tuzos.
The player to watch: Jonathan Urretaviscalla
The talented Uruguayan National team member has quietly been the engine that makes the Pachuca attack run. In 10 games played this year, “Urreta” has two goals and seven assists. While “Chucky” Lozano and Franco Jara (six goals) have drawn all the attention this season for their goal scoring, Urreta has been simply the best all around player on the field.
A blazing fast player with world class footwork, and deadly crossing ability, Urreta will likely be tasked with playing more forward than his usual right wing position, until Lozano returns from injury. In his last game against Tijuana, Urreta was played as the second forward in the 4-4-2, and responded with one goal and one assist in helping Pachuca win for the first time ever at Tijuana.
How they got here: Oscar Pareja steered his side though the group stage, using his teams depth to navigate through both the CCL Group stage, and win the MLS Supporters’ Shield (best record) at the end of the season. FC Dallas just beat out Guatemalan side Suchitepequez, with a reserve heavy lineup, and an unfamiliar formation (5-4-1), to win their group.
FC Dallas took a very radical approach to their preseason preparation, opting to take the unconventional route of playing eight game in eight days on a trip to Argentina. FC Dallas gambled that their Argentine opponents would field their best talent in their matches, due to the Argentina Primera Division being postponed. FC Dallas also used the hectic schedule, to incorporate three new starters into their lineup, with Roland Lama, Cristian Colman, and Hernan Grana, all seen as upgrades at their positions.
The gambled payed off, and a FC Dallas team that looked in anything but preseason form, steamrolled Panamanian Quarterfinal opponent Arabe Unido on a 5-2 aggregate score. Arabe Unido came in as the higher seed, but much like Saprissa, had been gutted of their best players during the January Transfer window.
Current league standing, and team form: FC Dallas has started their 2017 campaign in fine form, following up the series win against Arabe Unido, by gaining four points on the road, in their first two league games. FC Dallas showed off it's depth, having used 18 different starters in attaining those results.
FC Dallas is seen by many as MLS's best chance to win the CCL in the current (and soon to be replaced) format. A quick look at the team’s form tells you why. Dating back to last season, FC Dallas have only lost two games in 17 matches across all competitions, both of them on the road. Their last loss was against Arabe Unido, in a game where FC Dallas simply decided to waste away the time clock, knowing fully well the series had already been won.
The player to watch: Kellyn Acosta
Last season, FC Dallas lost it’s best playmaker (Mauro Diaz) to injury. It doomed FCD to an early exit in the MLS Playoffs. This season, with the team looking for someone to step up until their star player returns, Kellyn Acosta has done just that.
The 21-year old midfielder, has been mostly known as a “Box to box” midfielder, and not really tasked with carrying the offensive load. This season, Kellyn has taken on the challenge of become more of a focal point for the FCD attack, and has three goals in four games to show for his efforts. This is a young player on the rise, who we have not likely seen the best of, and who’s accent, could very well lead to the top of the CCL trophy presentation podium.