By Fabian Estay
The final round of CONCACAF Champions League Group Stage games provided their own drama, and established some intriguing quarterfinal match-ups that will take in March of next year.
The hegemony of the Mexican and American clubs has continued, this time with some surprises. Why not say so? The notable exceptions were the late goal by Xelaju that eliminated Chivas and Herediano holding Real Salt Lake without a goal to get through.
Three Mexican clubs, three American, a Costa Rican team and one Guatemalan side will fight for the right to represent CONCACAF at next year's Club World Cup.
Santos wound up strolling through its group, winning all four matches. Herediano held on for dear life against Real Salt Lake in the final match, but prevailed with a 0-0 draw to advance.
The Houston Dynamo had to rally against Olimpia after Douglas Caetano scored an early goal, but Andrew Hainault earned Houston a place in the knockout round. The Seattle Sounders, conversely, were like Santos, marching into the quarters with four victories in as many games.
The Galaxy also advanced -- and before it played its final match, but at times looked vulnerable. Tigres had to wait until the final match, but with its back against the wall, used all its regulars and routed Alajuelense to make the Costa Rican club look significantly inferior.
Two-time defending champion Monterrey was the best team in the first round according to the numbers, winning its four matches by nearly four goals per game and without allowing one.
Xelaju was the biggest surprise. Despite losing at Guadalajara, Allan Aleman's header in the 79th minute was enough to give the Guatemalans their first trip to the quarterfinals.
It was a fair result. Chivas had the better of play, but failed to finish its chances and committed a number of defensive errors, one of which made the difference. Guadalajara was eliminated in front of adviser/consultant Johan Cruyff, who will in a few days return to Europe to prepare a report, a short one most likely, about his time with the club.
Xelaju's exhilaration will extend at least three months, but will run straight into Monterrey in March. Besides Monterrey's attacking power, defensive prowess and domination of its group, the Guatemalan side had the worst goal difference of any team in the Group Stage, didn't win away from home and has lost seven of 11 games away from home since the new season began in July.
However, Xelaju has not lost at home in 38 games - a stretch that includes 30 victories and dates back to April 2011.
In the case of Herediano-Galaxy, the American squad has not seemed overly strong away from home. Its 3-2 victory over Metapan on Thursday was only the third in seven games away from The Home Depot Center in the Champions League. Herediano finished with three wins and a draw in the Champions League - factors that create potentially the most even match-up of the quarterfinals.
Houston provides a more difficult challenge for Santos that it faced in the Group Stag. However, Santos was almost as impressive as Monterrey, outscoring opponents 13-1 while winning all four games in the the Champions League. And while Houston has been unbeatable at home since opening BBVA Compass Stadium in May, it has only won only two of its last 18 games away from home.
In the case of Tigres-Seattle, if Ricardo Ferretti puts his starters, the Monterrey club might not have too much trouble. On the other hand, if he doesn't Seattle should be able to advance easily. Let's see what "Tuca" decides as, unfortunately, international tournaments have never been of much interest to him.
For now we have to wait four months for the quarterfinals to begin. Signs point to the Mexican dominance continuing, but in soccer nothing is written and anything can happen. The games need to be played. Nobody wins based on names or nationality