That's yer lot for the excellent CONCACAF Champions League, for the time being at least.  If you've ever wondered what playing football in Trinidad is like, here's Alistair Cubbon to enlighten.

After a two week break for the international games, the final CONCACAF Champions League matches were played last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Three teams, Cruz Azul, Real Salt Lake from Group A and Monterrey from Group C, had already qualified for the next round but there was still a lot to play for some of the other sides.  Saprissa of Costa Rica had not played well in a tough group, but they could thank some half-decent home performances and kind refereeing for that fact that they could still qualify with a win in their last game.  Saprissa played Seattle Sounders away from home and fought back to get the 1-2 victory they needed after going a goal down early in the first half.  Jairo Arrieta showed determination to barrel his way through the defence to slide home a loose ball and Los Morados finally clinched qualification with a last minute goal from Josue Martinez.  Veteran goalkeeper Kasey Keller couldn’t stop Martinez’s firmly hit shot and the ball escaped over the goal line.

The Sounders were already eliminated from the tournament, but had at least guaranteed themselves a place in the CCL next year after winning the US Open Cup.  Seattle have been underwhelming in the tournament this year and need significant investment in their playing staff to be able to continue their MLS form in the CCL next time around.  “It is good to get a slap in the face” admitted Sounders coach - and possible friend of Max Mosley -  Sigi Schmid after their latest defeat.  This was the fifth slap in the face they have received in their first attempt in this tournament.  Every team has a hard job to balance the pressures of domestic football and inter-continental competition but Seattle have been consistently good in the MLS and the polar opposite in the CCL.  The extra demands of long-distance travel and the congested fixture list proved too much for a team only in their second MLS season.  Their domestic success has been nothing short of phenomenal but they were easily found out in the CCL this year.   Their opponents in the final game, Saprissa have been poor in both domestic and international competition but they can look forward to the next round in February.

So that clears up the qualifiers for groups A and B.  Group D managed to keep us guessing down to the wire though as any two from the Puerto Rico Islanders, Toluca and Olimpia could have qualified on Wednesday.  It was announced last weekend that Toluca manager Juan Manuel de la Torre would become the new manager of the Mexican national team at the end of the season.  The Mexicans put aside any negative feelings from the news of de la Torre’s departure and stormed their way into the next round.  Toluca played first and beat FAS 5-0 helped by a great hat trick from Chilean international outcast Hector Mancilla.  Since leaving his homeland and moving to Mexico Mancilla has struggled to get any recognition from the national team, “They love me more here than in my own country” he once said.  If he keeps putting away hat tricks like the one on Wednesday night, they will love him for a long time.  At 30 years old, he may have missed his chance at international level though, still if Kevin Davies can do it...

Toluca’s victory over FAS temporarily put them into top spot in the group ahead of Olimpia, the group leaders going into the final day.  Olimpia, rapidly becoming my favourite team in this tournament, put themselves back in first later that day with a 3-0 victory over Puerto Rico Islanders, led by two goals from Roger Rojas.  If RoRo, contracted to Wigan Athletic, maintains his fine level of performance then he should light up the Premier League.  He was loaned back to Olimpia until he meets the visa requirements for the UK, he is quick and skillful and knows how to score goals, an exciting prospect for the pie-eaters.

After Real Salt Lake had qualified and Seattle and Toronto had been eliminated it was left to the other MLS team, Columbus Crew, to try to make history by getting two MLS teams into the CCL quarterfinals.   They played on Thursday night achieving a confidence boosting 1-4 win over Joe Public in Trinidad.  The occasion wasn’t as dramatic as it could have been though due to Santos Laguna’s stonking 5-1 victory over Municipal on Tuesday.  This meant that Santos won the group and that Columbus had already qualified and Jack Warner’s Joe Public were already eliminated before their own game kicked off.  The Crew have shown that they are able to withstand the demands of CCL games as they have now qualified for the quarterfinals 2 years in a row.  Coming into this game, they were on a six game losing streak but roused themselves enough to win this meaningless game.  Søren Kierkegaard suggested that in order to give meaning to the meaningless individuals should live passionately and sincerely.  In a game that struggled to find a meaning for its existence, Emilio Renteria lived out Kierkegaard’s guideline by coming off the bench at the beginning of the second half with the game tied at 1-1.  He scored two goals, one a penalty, and made up for his bizarre CCL appearance against Santos, when he created a goal for Andy Iro only to see it disallowed because Renteria was wearing a shirt without a number.

The game may have been meaningless but maybe the value was in the experience itself.  The CCL provides players with the chance to see other cultures.  This was Crew forward Jason Garey’s analysis his enriching experience of playing against Joe Public in Trinidad, “One end of the field smelled like weed, the other end smelled like dead shrimp”. And with that group stage of the CCL was over for another year.

The draw for the quarterfinal games will be made on November 1 in New York.  They are due to commence in February 2011.  This may have some implications for the two MLS teams in the draw, Real Salt Lake and Columbus Crew.  The MLS season will finish in a month and often the star players move on to play abroad during the off-season.  Both of these teams could be playing with weaker sides in the important games to come.  There are often calls for the MLS to move away from a spring/summer schedule to one that matches other countries.  This may have the effect of making MLS teams more competitive but could have significant consequences in terms of the continuing appeal of the MLS teams.  An autumn/winter schedule would see the MLS up against American football, basketball and ice hockey on television and it would be hard to draw fans to watch live games in the sub-zero temperatures common across the US in the winter.  As yet no moves are in the pipeline to change the current scheduling.  If the popularity and quality of the MLS continues to grow then it may happen at some point though.

Group winners

Real Salt Lake

Santos Laguna

Monterrey

Olimpia

Second place qualifiers

Cruz Azul

Columbus Crew

Saprissa

Toluca

Alistair writes regularly for IBWM and if you’d like to read more from him, please visit the excellent Sol y Sombra, a real house favourite.

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