MIAMI, Florida – The 2021 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League started off with a thrilling Day 1 in which there was no shortage of drama throughout the three matches.
Here are five takeaways from Tuesday night’s action.
Arcahaie defense stands tall
Going into Tuesday night’s Round of 16 first leg between Mexican giants Cruz Azul and SCCL debutants Arcahaie of Haiti, Cruz Azul had won 11 straight matches in Liga MX and was one of Mexico’s top scoring teams with 20 goals.
But the contest with Arcahaie proved a much different story. With a well-organized and compact defense, Arcahaie managed to turn away Cruz Azul at any sign of danger and produced a 0-0 draw against the six-time Concacaf champions. GK Gooly Elien was an anchor in the back making a pair of top saves in the first half, as Arcahaie frustrated La Maquina throughout.
For a team that suffered a 5-0 defeat at Deportivo Saprissa in the 2020 Scotiabank Concacaf League semifinals, Arcahaie’s improvement in the back against Cruz Azul was noteworthy.
Rios Novo to the rescue
Needless to say, Rocco Rios Novo will never forget the night of April 6, 2021. The 18-year-old Argentine GK made his Atlanta United debut by coming off the bench late in the first half after a red card was issued to starting GK Brad Guzan and made an Atlanta United SCCL record six saves to preserve his team’s 1-0 win at Liga Deportiva Alajuelense.
Rios Novo had been promoted to the first team from Atlanta United’s reserve team due to other first team absences, but then suddenly was thrust into the SCCL spotlight with Guzan’s sending off. The Argentina Under-17 FIFA World Cup player showed poise beyond his years by making a pair of superb saves in the final 10 minutes, making Atlanta United the first team from MLS to ever win an SCCL match at Alajuelense.
The resilience of Marathon
It is never easy to come back from a deficit in SCCL play, and to have to do so twice is almost impossible, but that’s exactly what Marathon accomplished in their 2-2 home draw with the Portland Timbers. The visitors from MLS grabbed a lead in the 35th minute, only for the Catrachos to strike right back four minutes later through Brayan Castillo.
There was more of the same in the second half when an own goal off a Diego Valeri free kick pushed Portland back into the lead in the 59th minute, but Marathon never felt any panic and Marlon Ramirez’s excellent left-footed strike nine minutes later.
It was the kind of resilience showed by a side that will be undaunted going into next week’s away leg in Portland.
Welcome back, Josef Martinez
Atlanta United may have only started playing in MLS since 2017, but they have quickly carved out a nice history in the SCCL. This year the Georgia side are making their third appearance in the tournament and Tuesday’s 1-0 win at Alajuelense marked the return of a very important player for new Head Coach Gabriel Heinze.
FW Josef Martinez entered as a second half substitute and played the final 25 minutes against the Ticos, his first minutes since the 2020 MLS season opener when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Nashville SC. Martinez’s exploits in MLS are beyond reproach, but his ability to score goals in Concacaf play should not be overlooked.
The Venezuelan is Atlanta United’s all-time leading scorer in the SCCL with five goals and has scored in every SCCL round in which he has ever played. It is a statistic that certainly bodes well for the MLS side going into next week’s return leg.
SCL sides look sharp
Three teams that qualified for the 2021 SCCL via the 2020 Scotiabank Concacaf League were in action on Tuesday in Marathon of Honduras, 2020 SCL champions Alajuelense and Arcahaie of Haiti, and all three showed the value of having competed recently in Concacaf competition.
Marathon went toe-to-toe with the Portland Timbers, Alajuelense were narrowly defeated 1-0 by a talented Atlanta United side in a match that could have gone either way, while the same competitive fire that Arcahaie showed in the 2020 SCL was on display in their 0-0 draw with Cruz Azul.