CONCACAF’s Champions League proved to be a big success with surprises galore.
By Martin Del Palacio Langer in Mexico City
The first edition of the European-style Champions League tournament was a surprising success. Although the result was the same as in previous years – three of the four semi-finalists were Mexican, as were the champions – there was much greater excitement and far more shocks than in the past.
Atlante deservedly won the tournament by beating Cruz Azul 2-0 on aggregate in the Final after a goalless draw in the delayed second leg in Cancun. Except for a defeat at home by modest Joe Public of Trinidad and Tobago, Los Potros de Hierro (the Iron Colts) were by far the most consistent team. Furthermore, they were the only Mexican club that took the tournament seriously, using their strongest starting XI from the very beginning.
But the big stories came from two teams who were representing countries where football is far from the most important sport. Without any regard to the hierarchy of the region, Puerto Rico Islanders and Montreal Impact managed to have very successful campaigns.
The Canadians, who were on the verge of being eliminated by Nicaraguan minnows Real Esteli in the preliminary round, built momentum as they progressed and victory in Honduras against Olimpia, plus a draw with Atlante, helped them to reach the quarter-finals.
There they faced another powerhouse, Santos Laguna, and defeated them 2-0 in the first leg, played in front of 55,000 spectators in Montreal – a record for a Canadian team and proof of the sport’s potential in the country. However, things reverted to type in the return as the Mexican team won 5-2, but only thanks to two goals in stoppage time.
If the North Americans surprised everyone, Puerto Rico Islanders went one better as they advanced to the semi-finals, having gone through the first stage in a difficult group which included Santos Laguna, Municipal of Guatemala and Panama’s Tauro.
They then beat Marathon of Honduras in the quarter-finals, winning the first leg 2-1 and surviving an initial onslaught to win the return 1-0 in San Pedro Sula at one of the most difficult venues in the region.
In the semi-finals they faced one of the traditional CONCACAF powers, Mexico’s Cruz Azul, who were on the ropes after being defeated 2-0 in the first leg in Bayamon. However, the Mexico City-based club managed to bounce back in the return, though they had midfielder Cristian Riveros sent off in the first half and only advanced after a dramatic penalty shoot-out.
Both Islanders and Impact play in the USL, the second tier of US football, and their success should be food for thought for the leadership of Major League Soccer, whose teams started off as favourites but never lived up to the expectations placed upon them.
Houston Dynamo advanced to the quarter-finals after a nail-biting victory over El Salvador’s Luis Angel Firpo in their last match of the group stage. But in the last eight they found Atlante too tough a proposition and the champions -to-be went through 4-1 on aggregate without too much trouble. DC United, meanwhile, were the worst team in the tournament, managing to scrape just one draw from their six matches.