By Brian Dunseth
And with the home-and-away qualifying format set for these 16 teams who have their sights on the Group Stage, the common train of thought for most teams heading into their first match was twofold. If you're at home, get the win and run up the score as much as possible to give yourself a cushion heading into the second leg.
If you're on the road, keep things as close as you can in that first 90 minutes with an eye on taking it back to your home field just seven days later.
But despite all the preparation, the travel, the starters, the coaching decisions, the lack of fitness for some teams and last-minute tactics, the midweek matches of some of the best teams in our region resulted in some of the most surprising results in recent memory.
Both Santos Laguna and Cruz Azul dominated on the road as expected (against San Juan Jabloteh and San Francisco respectively) and are taking leads into their home legs next week while continuing to utilize their youthful depth. It's similar to what we saw last year with both Pachuca (a 10-1 aggregate winner against Jalapa) and Cruz Azul (a 6-2 winner vs. Herediano) easily pushing into the Group Stage.
While Major League Soccer has three teams entered in the Preliminary Round (Toronto FC qualified based on winning the Nutralite Canadian Championship for the second year in a row), their match proved to be a bit trickier than most probably expected and definitely a lot more entertaining.
Toronto FC had a bit of drama surrounding their match with Honduran side Motagua. Some pundits called it Preki vs. Amado Guevera - Round 3. It was the first meeting between Guevara and his former coach since the Honduran's release from Toronto after Preki took over in January - and that was the second time Preki had divorced himself of the mercurial midfielder after an initial dismissal from Chivas USA in 2007 after just four games.
It faded from thought when TFC took the lead in the 20th minute on Chad Barrett's goal, and completely forgotten when Guevara was subbed out at halftime by Motagua head coach Ramon Maradiaga.
The result would hold at BMO Field, but with a MLS match on Saturday in Kansas City and the short recovery time in between travel to Honduras, is a 1-0 lead good enough to hold in Tegulcigalpa?
The second match of the night would take place in one of the most difficult places to play in Major League Soccer over the past two seasons -- the Los Angeles Galaxy's Home Depot Center in Carson, California.
The match between the Galaxy and the USSF D2's Puerto Rico Islanders raised eyebrows when the pairing was unveiled in May. The Galaxy have enjoyed a runaway season in MLS, while the Islanders have earned the title of "Giant Killers" for victories over teams like Alajuelense, Santos Laguna and Cruz Azul in the CONCACAF Champions League over the past two years.
While Bruce Arena decided to rest a few of his big name players (namely Donovan Ricketts and Omar Gonzalez), the Galaxy starting 11 boasted the likes of Landon Donovan, Edson Buddle, Sean Franklin, Eddie Lewis and Gregg Berhalter.
But it was Puerto Rico that left the Home Depot Center 90 minutes later with a 4-1 shock result, riding the double of Nicholas Addlery and taking it back to Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium next Wednesday with a solid cushion.
The question now is how the Islanders approach the second leg knowing the Galaxy have to score at least four times, and the away goals rule could come into effect.
Wednesday night rounded out the final match for the MLS clubs when the Seattle Sounders hosted Isidro Metapan at Qwest Field in what would be the El Salvadoran club's first competitive match since its won the Clausura title in May.
And similar to Toronto, the Sounders enjoyed much of the possession and scoring opportunities. But it was 59th-minute substitute Fredy Montero who would prevail, taking just two touches before pulling the trigger from 40 yards and beating Misael Alfaro for the winner.
With a trip to face the San Jose Earthquakes this weekend and the changing of venues to Estadio Cuscatlan (home of Alianza), will the fan atmosphere change from club vs. club to El Salvador vs. the United States? And if so, will it have any effect on the match?
With FAS and Xelaju all even at 1-1, Brujas and Joe Public level at 2-2, it was Marathon with the most comprehensive road result of the first leg, walking out of Panama with the 3-0 win over Tauro.
Last year, three of the seven teams that lost the first leg were able to reach Group Stage, and all three teams that won away from home held on to advance.
What does this season have in store for us?