By Brian Dunseth
So, what's the CONCACAF Champions League all about? How do you qualify? What's the point? What's the value? What does the winner get?
Oh, just the best club teams in the CONCACAF region facing each other for a chance to face the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona, Internacional, Boca Juniors, etc.
And all you have to do is play some of the best Mexican, Costa Rican and American sides in both knock-out and Group Stage play.
Did I mention the travel involved right square in the middle of your respective league play? The airports? The buses? Varying food? Referees from different countries with different takes on the rules? Fatigue? Hostile environments? Injury? The commitment level it takes from the coaching, administration and players?
This year's representative from CONCACAF will be Pachuca, a team that captured the 2009-10 Champions League title in dramatic fashion -- a last-minute goal by Edgar Benitiez against perennial runner-up Cruz Azul to earn a trip to the United Arab Emirates.
And its possible opponents in Abu Dhabi in December? UEFA Champions League winning Inter Milan and Copa Libertadores champion Internacional from Brazil just to name drop…
The fight for next year's tip to the Club World Cup already is two months old in CONCACAF, and three teams: Monterrey, Cruz Azul and Real Salt Lake, have deservedly staked their claim by clinching spots in the quarterfinals for the confederation's 2011 title with one round of group play remaining.
The three teams have continually showed their commitment to the most important regional club tournament that we have available to us.
But, is there an underlying advantage or disadvantage that teams have based on the scheduling of their matches? There might be an argument for a couple of squads that haven't had the easiest time so far.
Three teams: Toronto FC, the Seattle Sounders and Santos had to play three out of their first four matches on the road. Two of them already are eliminated and the other is still needs a result to qualify.
Toronto started off incredibly well at BMO Field with the 2-1 victory over Mexican powerhouse Cruz Azul. The next three matches, though, three were on the road: a 1-0 loss at Arabe Unido, a 4-1 loss at Real Salt Lake and then a 0-0 draw at Cruz Azul. Three consecutive games on the road in tough environments in the middle of a coaching upheaval? It proved to be too much for the Canadian champion.
The Seattle Sounders, the Cinderella story of MLS expansion teams last season and a team that no one saw at the bottom of Group C - the group I personally feel was the "Group of Death", has struggled more than only two other teams.
If there was a team that any coach could use as an example as to how important it is to start out group play with a win to gain some confidence, especially when you have three out of your first four on the road, it would be Seattle. Four losses: 2-1 at Marathon, 2-0 at home against Monterrey, 2-0 at Saprissa and 3-2 at Monterrey quickly doomed the Sounders.
Santos Laguna, one of the most offensively potent teams in the tournament, started with an easy 5-2 victory over T&T side Joe Public. It followed with a controversial 1-0 win over Columbus at home, a 2-2 draw at Municipal and a 1-0 loss at Columbus.
A 5-1 victory at home against Joe Public on Wednesday put Santos Laguna atop Group B, and it will most likely qualify for the next round. But it proves how much the "luck of the draw" can affect even the best of teams in this tournament.
With the would of, could of, should ofs out of way, here's what's left heading into the final round of the Group Stage in three weeks.
Group A: Done and dusted with Cruz Azul and Real Salt Lake through. The only thing undecided is who wins the group.
Group B: Only Joe Public is out, so will the Trinidadian club roll over at home against Columbus? Santos Laguna is at home against Municipal and needs only a draw to advance, but three points to be assured of winning the group. Municipal needs a win since a draw would leave it behind Columbus on head-to-head away goals.
Group C: Monterrey is through, so what type of team will it field at Marathon? And will the same Seattle team show up at Qwest Field that thumped Marathon on Wednesday?
Group D: Simple, win and you're in. Toluca vs FAS, and Olimpia vs Puerto Rico.