A new tournament, a new frontier
For the first time ever, CONCACAF teams have played competitive matches throughout the region in a short amount of time. The region's inaugural Champions League is underway and whether or not the tournament is viable or necessary is irrelevant now that the games have begun.
With a supposed wide chasm between the top leagues and the lower levels of the region, it seemed certain things would go according to plan. And while some have -- Mexican teams have been unbeatable at home, for instance -- there have been several early conclusions.
Perhaps the toughest lesson CONCACAF teams are learning are the challenges of playing on the road. With 15 games in the books, road teams have won just twice -- Costa Rican side Deportivo Saprissa and Honduran club Olímpia won at D.C. United and Joe Public, respectively.
Road results, though, may be more indicative of the struggles teams face just to get the matches rather than the strength of the respective leagues and nations. Of the matches played thus far, 12 games required one team to travel more than 1,000 miles.
For instance, Santos Laguna is based in Torreón, Mexico -- a little less than 3,000 miles from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Perhaps not surprisingly then, Santos struggled mightily on the isle and fell 3-1 in perhaps the most stunning result of the early stages. Joe Public also faced a challenging trip, playing some 2,500 miles away from home at Montreal; the Trinidadians also lost, 2-0 to the Impact.
With such adverse travel conditions, then, it may be no surprise that road teams have struggled simply to score, let alone win. Road teams have scored just 10 goals and have surrendered 26.
Still, the most nightmarish scenario of the early stages has yet to play out. The Houston Dynamo played a midweek match at San Francisco FC of Panama, some 1,700 miles away. After a 0-0 draw, Houston faced a league match at Toronto FC, about 2,400 miles in the opposite direction. Then, three days after its match at BMO Field, Houston faces a trip to Mexico City to play Pumas, roughly 2,000 miles back the other way. All told, that's roughly 6,000 air miles in the span of one week.
USL greater than MLS?
Which was supposed to be the second-tier league in the U.S. again? MLS clubs have combined for zero goals in three games, while the United Soccer Leagues have both of its participant clubs sitting atop their respective groups. While neither technically plays in the U.S. -- Montreal was Canada's entrant, while the Islanders were Puerto Rico's -- the Tampa-based league is looking far better through the first third of the competition than the New York-based one: Montreal and Puerto Rico are a combined 3-0-1 so far in the tournament.
The writing was on the wall for MLS before the tournament started, though. New England and Chivas USA were supposed to have a less-than-challenging go at qualifying against Joe Public and Tauro FC, respectively, but road losses, coupled with poor home results, saw the the MLS clubs ousted before the group stage of the tournament began.
Conversely, Montreal and Puerto Rico overcame difficult qualifying paths. The Impact survived a three-team Canadian playoff that included MLS side Toronto FC, then beat Honduran side Real Estelí to get into the tournament. The Islanders, meanwhile, beat Costa Rican power Alajuelense.
Perhaps it's that bite and tenacity that have helped the USL clubs. Montreal tied Atlante 0-0 earlier this week but held serve and beat Joe Public in the opener 2-0. Puerto Rico, meanwhile, had possibly the most surprising result of the tournament, beating Santos Laguna 3-1 in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. The victory itself would have been stunning, but to have held a three-goal edge over the reigning Mexican champions is shocking.
MLS clubs, meanwhile, have had the worst combined showing of any league, save for perhaps El Salvador's. Houston's match against El Salvador entrant Luis Ángel Firpo was postponed due to Hurricane Ike, so perhaps things would be different had it gone on as scheduled. But MLS teams have done little to show off their supposed growth to their international opponents. While Houston pulled out a respectable point in Panama, D.C. United has been awful, losing by identical 2-0 scores both home (to Saprissa) and away (to Marathón).
Although MLS has one major result against a USL side already this year -- D.C. United beat Charleston in the U.S. Open Cup final earlier this month -- a potential MLS-USL matchup wouldn't happen until the knockout rounds at the earliest. If these early results are any indicator, the USL teams might be the only ones holding up that part of the deal.
Mexican teams dominate at home
Nowhere else do teams enjoy a greater home-field advantage than in Mexico. The region's presumed top league is doing little to tar its image. Mexican clubs are a combined 4-0 at home and have outscored their opponents 11-2.
Of course, this is nothing new. Mexican teams have throttled CONCACAF opponents with consistency during this tournament's previous version, the Champions' Cup. When the competition switched to its home-and-away format, Mexican clubs took advantage of their ability to play at home and won five of the seven tournaments. Of the 14 finalists over the seven years, 10 slots were taken up by Mexican teams.
Cruz Azul posted an impressive victory over Deportivo Saprissa by knocking off the Costa Rican side 4-0 in Estadio Azul earlier this week. Saprissa, one of the pre-tournament favorites, provided little competition to la Máquina. Luis Ángel Firpo and Olímpia also suffered similar fates, falling 3-0 at Pumas and 1-0 at Atlante, respectively. Only Santos Laguna faced adversity as Matías Vuoso's 90th-minute goal proved the game-winner in a 3-2 win over Guatemalan side Municipal.
With twice as many clubs in the tournament as any other nation, Mexican teams will certainly do well in the group stage. When the group stage wraps up, it'll be little surprise if all four claim spots in the knockout rounds.