By Dylan Butler
A review of CONCACAF in 2011 wouldn't be complete without Mexico winning the Champions League again. Yet this year it started to get a new challenge.
Monterrey continued the Mexican dominance in the annual club competition, following Atlante and Pachuca as regional champion. But "Los Rayados" were pushed to the brink by Real Salt Lake in the final, and, by the end of the year, Major League Soccer teams even figured out how to win in Mexico.
Humberto Suazo led Monterrey to the title, scoring the winner just before halftime in the second leg of the final in Sandy, Utah, after both teams played to a 2-2 draw in the opener at Estadio Tecnologico.
Monterrey, which qualified as 2009 Mexican Apertura champion, was the lone side to reach the quarterfinals unbeaten, finishing atop Group C.
It drew Mexican rival Toluca in the knockout round, winning 2-0 on aggregate as Osvaldo Martinez and Neri Cardozo scored late goals in each leg. It was another all-Mexican semifinal when Monterrey met Cruz Azul, which with tournament scoring leader Javier Orozco (12 goals) was bidding to reach the final for third straight year.
Cardozo and Sergio Santana struck in the opening leg to lift Monterrey to a 2-1 home win, and Suazo added a critical 81st-minute penalty to deadlock the second leg at 1-1 and send the Rayados to the final.
After rallying past Real Salt Lake, Monterrey advanced to the Club World Cup in Japan with thoughts of an historic run to the final. But alas, despite Suazo's 58th-minute goal to equalize at 1-1, Monterrey fell to J-League champion Kashiwa Reysol on penalties 4-3 and the CONCACAF representative was eliminated at the quarterfinal stage for a second straight year.
Monterrey redeemed some consolation by defeating Esperance from Tunisia 3-2 in the fifth-place match.
Real Salt Lake, which qualified as the 2010 MLS Cup champion, was the first Major League Soccer team to reach the CONCACAF Champions League final. The Group A winner thrashed American rival Columbus Crew 4-1 in the quarterfinals and edged Saprissa 3-2 in the semifinals.
When the CONCACAF Champions League resumed in July, FC Dallas also made history by becoming the first American team to win in Mexico, beating Pumas UNAM 1-0 to snap a 24-match winless streak.
"We are the first to beat a good Mexican team in Mexico," FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman said. "I hope that more MLS teams will have the same courage to play good soccer and I hope that we can continue to find success here."
Seattle Sounders FC did just that, beating defending champion Monterrey 1-0 in August.
Mother Nature also played a role in the Group Stage as matches between Toronto FC and Dallas, as well as Comunicaciones and Herediano were suspended on August 24 because of severe weather and resumed the next day - another first in the CONCACAF Champions League.
With the new season, despite some early setbacks for Morelia and Monterrey, Mexico again has filled the quarterfinals with four teams, including Pumas and Santos Laguna.
MLS will send three teams to the knockout round in March, including Toronto FC - the first Canadian side to reach the quarterfinals since Montreal in the inaugural season.
Along with the LA Galaxy and Seattle, Isidro Metapan has become El Salvador's first club to reach the quarterfinals, where it will face Pumas.
Morelia will play against Monterrey in an all-Mexico clash, while Toronto will square off against the Galaxy and Santos will face Toronto.
Eleven clubs already have secured places in the 2012-2013 Champions League, filling nearly half the 24-team field including five-time qualifiers Olimpia and Municipal.