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MLS clubs battle it out in CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals

Three Major League Soccer clubs will play this week in the quarter-finals of the 2010-2011 CONCACAF Champions League.

The Seattle Sounders will meet one of the 4 Mexican outfits in the final 8 while Canadian Cup holders Toronto FC will face the defending MLS champions Los Angeles Galaxy.

What is most refreshing about the field of contenders is that the clubs are fairly new as compared to their European counterparts. The newest of these are Toronto FC who were founded in just 2006. A closer look at the remaining 7 teams shows only 3 of the sides (all Mexican) being established before 1955.

Morelia, the senior most side, was formed in 1924, followed in order by Monterrey (1945), and UNAM (1954).

In order of newest, El Salvador’s Isidro Metapan (2000) is second only to Toronto followed by Los Angeles (1996), Santos Laguna (1983) and Seattle who have carried the Sounders name since 1974 albeit in different leagues and divisions.

This newness is especially positive as the fresh bloods give rise to this tournament while Concacaf supporters familiarize themselves with the favorites.

The quarter-finals draw has pitted the Canadian Cup holders Toronto against the MLS champions Galaxy. Both Toronto and Seattle have won their respective domestic cup title three years running. While the Canadians conquered a field of 4 for the trophy, the Americans finished atop of 40 teams having entered it at the 3rd round.

Here is a look at the field with the MLS clubs and their opponents this week:

SEATTLE SOUNDERS

FOUNDED: 1974

MANAGER: Sigi Schmid

STADIUM: Century Link Field (67,000)

NEW SIGNINGS: Eddie Johnson (Fulham), Michael Gspurning (Skoda Xanthi)

DEPARTURES: Kasey Keller (retired), Mike Fucito (Montreal), Lamar Neagle (Montreal)

ANALYSIS:

Seattle has achieved a fantastic 3 consecutive U.S. Open Cup titles (2009-2011) while setting attendance records along the way. Manager Sigi Schmid has had MLS titles with the LA Galaxy and Columbus Crew before being lured away to the MLS expansion Sounders. He is a proven winner who finds and develops talent on a thin budget.

Seattle have a big void to fill as legendary US International goalkeeper Kasey Keller has retired with 64,000 attending his farewell match. Austria’s 30-year-old Michael Gspurning will have the dubious task to fill in between the posts. The pre-season transfer of Eddie Johnson turned heads when Seattle sent two young and reliable players to Montreal Impact in exchange for the US International. After disappointing loan spells at Cardiff and Preston, the Fulham striker returns to the MLS where he had a meteoric start.

Seattle’s scoring, which topped the league with 56 goals, is both sporadic and unpredictable with no establish striking duo. Colombian Fredy Montero led the club with 12 tallies with support from Uruguayan Alvaro Fernandez and Argentine Mauro Rosales.

Seattle could be and exciting side to watch especially at home. However, the road that leads through Mexico is treacherous.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Eddie Johnson, Fredy Montero, Jeff Parke

SANTOS LAGUNA

FOUNDED: 1983

MANAGER: Benjamin Galindo

STADIUM: Estadio Corona (30,050)

NEW SIGNINGS: Hercules Gomez (Estudiantes Tecos), Marc Crosas (Volga)

DEPARTURES: Jose Maria Cardenas (Club America)

ANALYSIS:

The turbulent Mexican League is mix of old established clubs and new money upstarts like Tijuana and Santos. Former Santos and Mexican World Cup player Benjamin Galindo had already had a spell as Laguna manager. He is back for a second pull on the reigns. He has a fair mix of youth and experience at his disposal with Mexican Internationals Juan Pablo Rodriguez and Captain Oswaldo Sanchez to Argentine Daniel Luduena and Colombian Carlos Quintero. While Quintero is now 10th on the club’s all-time scoring list, Galindo has purchased Spaniard Marc Crosas from the Russian League. Crosas has already played in Scotland (Celtic) and France (Lyon) before moving to Mexico.

California-born American Hercules Gomez has not been a regular starter despite his scoring touch since moving South from MLS. The former LA Galaxy player shot 10 goals in 15 matches for Puebla before unsettling transfers to Pachuca, Tecos and finally Santos.

While Santos may be the weakest of the four Mexican sides, it also may be the biggest surprise.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Oswaldo Sanchez, Hercules Gomez, Oribe Peralta

LOS ANGELES GALAXY

FOUNDED: 1996

MANAGER: Bruce Arena

STADIUM: The Home Depot Center (27,000)

NEW SIGNINGS: Edson Buddle, pictured (Ingolstadt 04), Kyle Nakazawa (Philadelphia Union), Andrew Boyen (Chivas USA)

DEPARTURES: Jovan Kirovski (retired), Greg Berhalter (retired)

ANALYSIS:

The defending league and MLS Cup Champions are the new powerhouse of the league – in as much as there is a powerhouse. Salary caps have prevented the club from adding to its star-studded roster and competing at the international level.

The off-season news of David Beckham’s return for at least another year has been applauded. More importantly, the form of two on-loan players to the English Premier League has shown the rising levels of the North America circuit. The USA’s record setting Landon Donovan and the Republic of Ireland’s Robbie Keane were the pillars along the 2011 MLS Cup road to victory. Both Donovan (Everton) and Keane (Aston Villa) shined during their spell at the top flight despite their age, international commitments and lengthy seasons.

Former US World Cup manager Bruce Arena has proved he is one of the best in the business of assembling title teams. He set the bar with DC United in the 1990’s winning every trophy available at least once. But the former goalkeeper has had a suspect record with net minders – changing as many as 4 in a season.

He made a determination to give the starting # 1 job to Josh Saunders while leaving Jamaican World Cup veteran Donovan Ricketts unprotected to join MLS newcomers Montreal. But Saunders seems like a long-term steady cog in a Championship engine.

Arena’s development of young defenders, however, has been noted by the call up of 3 of the 4 backs to National Team duty. American defenders A.J. DeLaGarza, Sean Franklin and Omar Gonzales are all still in their early 20’s and donned the shirt for the USA.

Bruce Arena has proven himself domestically on several occasions. He did bring MLS its first international trophies by beating Brazil’s Vasco Da Gama for the Intercontinental Cup in 1998. One more victory like that would immortalize him as the regions best boss.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Josh Saunders, Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan

TORONTO FC

FOUNDED: 2006

MANAGER: Aron Winter

STADIUM: BMO Field (21,140)

NEW SIGNINGS: Luis Silva (MLS draft)

DEPARTURES: too many to list

ANALYSIS:

For a club with such a short history, the number of players through the club’s revolving door has been countless. And the changing managerial faces have been there to match. Yet, on the domestic level, TFC has brought some credibility to Canadian professional football where it had not existed.

Indeed the club has money to spend as Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment own several professional franchises in multiple leagues including hockey and basketball. It is now upon former Dutch World Cup star Aron Winter to bring more silverware than the 3 Canadian Cups that have qualified it for this Concacaf Tournament.

Perhaps the workman like transfers of German World Cup defender Torsten Frings and towering Dutchman Danny Koevermans reflects the building blocks of TFC architecture. Juxtaposition them to 5ft. 3 inch Ecuadorian Joao Plata whose 4 goals in 5 Concacaf matches led the way and you may have a contender.

Winter’s biggest worry was – well, the winter. The off-season has not been nearly enough time to gel a team of so many newcomers. However, an early start in the Concacaf Champions League may be the catalyst for the MLS fixtures to come.

Julian de Guzman has had to shoulder the burden since the departure of fan favorite and fellow Canadian star Dwayne DeRosario.

Subsequently, DeRosario went on to win Player of the Year honors for 2011 in MLS. Winter is expecting more than just the 3 goals de Guzman provided last season.

TFC do have the luxury of 2 competent goalkeepers in the Swiss Stefan Frei and the Serb Milos Kocic who were rotated for the various competitions without a clear-cut 1st choice.

The small but solid fortress that Toronto call home – BMO Field - can be a shock in the cold of the Canadian North. Winter and company will surely use it to their advantage this week. But what will they do when summer arrives?

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Joao Plata, Torsten Frings, Julian de Guzman

Fixtures

March 6:

Morelia - Monterrey

March 7:

Seattle Sounders – Santos Laguna

Toronto FC – Los Angeles Galaxy

March 8:

Isidro Metapan – UNAM

March 13:

Monterrey – Morelia

March 14:

Santos Laguna – Seattle Sounders

Los Angeles Galaxy – Toronto FC

March 15:

UNAM - Isidro Metapan

By Chuck Zsolnai


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