CONCACAF Champions League groups were finally set after the second legs were completed this week. There weren't too many surprises as all MLS and Mexico teams went through - although Olimpia of Honduras made things interesting with Santos Laguna.
Each group looks difficult and each group has its challenges but perhaps the most challenging group is.... well, let me write about each group and decide.
LA Galaxy (USA)
Alajuelense (Costa Rica)
The Galaxy will try and put last year's qualifying debacle behind them as they will get their first crack at the Champions League (they've played in several Champions Cups prior). But the road is difficult for all teams. Tegucigalpa could be the most difficult venue amongst the quartet but Motagua has struggled on the road in their brief CONCACAF history. Morelia shredded their Haitian opposition in qualifying but in league, they are coming off a loss to Pumas. Morelia will meet up against Monterrey and Guadalajara before the tournament begins, which could reveal what kind of side Monarcas could be in league. Alajuelences meanwhile are a traditional power in Costa Rica and are trying to re-establish themselves, having won the last two Costa Rican league titles.
Colorado Rapids (USA)
Real Espana (Honduras)
Santos Laguna (Mexico)
Isidro Metapan (El Salvador)
Colorado won MLS Cup 2010 ahead of FC Dallas and claimed a spot in the tournament proper because of that, but the Rapids are not having as strong of a season as their cup rivals are. Colorado looked to have suffered some doom when forward Conor Casey was lost for the season recently but the team has responded well, with eight goals in three games since. Isidro Metapan will participate in the group stage for the second time as they reached the 09-10 edition, but the El Salvadorans seem like a longshot to advance. Santos Laguna have won their first two league games by a combined 7-1 and figure to be the toughest side in this group while Real Espana will have their challenging venue in San Pedro Sula as an advantage.
Pumas UNAM (Mexico)
FC Dallas (USA)
Toronto FC (Canada)
Pumas could be the best team in the entire tournament. The current Mexican league champions, Pumas have three wins in three games in the Apertura 2011 season thus far. Traditionally, though, Pumas have fielded reserves and youngsters for their international competition. How serious Pumas take this tournament should be evident from the start. Tauro of Panama reached the tournament directly and can be a tricky side - Tauro ousted Chivas USA from the tournament in 2008. This is the lone group with two MLS sides as Toronto and FC Dallas will square off two more times. FC Dallas has the horses to compete for a spot in the knockout rounds while Toronto has a new-look side who could come together well in this tournament. And Toronto could have the edge over FC Dallas and Tauro - Toronto tied Cruz Azul in Mexico in the tournament last time around, a rare result for an MLS side.
Seattle Sounders (USA)
Herediano (Costa Rica)
The champions of CONCACAF lead Group D as Monterrey returns and will try to defend their title. Monterrey will be tough both home and away, as their second-leg victory over Real Salt Lake in the final earlier this year proved. Herediano are in their first group stage and were embarrassed by Cruz Azul in their first attempt at qualifying, losing at home by 6-2 in 2009. Comunicaciones have won 24 Guatemalan league titles and won a CONCACAF crown in the 70s but will be hard-pressed to do well in this tournament. Seattle Sounders meanwhile have the experience from 2010-11 to count on and did well to take care of San Francisco of Panama when they needed to in the preliminary round. Certainly Seattle have the talent to do well in this tournament.
Alright, based on my observations, some of which I included above, it seems to me that the toughest group is Group A. Motagua are a dangerous team loaded with strong players such as Amado Guevara, Guillermo "Pando" Ramirez and Ivan Guerrero - all former MLSers. Group A is wide open as any of the four could finish anywhere from first to last.
The weakest group seems like Group D. Guatemalan sides traditionally have fared poorly in this tournament while Herediano are wide-eyed first-timers. Group C looks top-heavy with Pumas playing so well of late but Toronto could surprise and be a bit of a wild card in the mix. Group B looks quite balanced. Although Santos have done well, they lost Christian Benitez and will rely on Oribe Peralta for offense.
The tournament kicks off on Aug. 16, and just what group proves to be the trickiest will begin to sort out soon enough.