Last year in late October, the San Jose Earthquakes had a weekend to remember as the club celebrated the groundbreaking of its new stadium, a dramatic 2-2 result against the LA Galaxy, and the capture of its second ever Supporters’ Shield. Champagne showers erupted in the locker room that evening, as clinching the best regular season record in MLS guaranteed the Quakes entry into the CONCACAF Champions League. Now, nearly 10 months later, the campaign finally begins in the confederation’s most prestigious club tournament.
The format of the Champions League is pretty straightforward: 8 groups of 3 teams each will play home and away series throughout the next two months to present a winner that will advance to next spring’s quarterfinal round. The knockout stages culminate with the CCL final where the ultimate prize is an invitation to the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup. No MLS team has made it that far, as representatives from Mexico have captured the CCL title for 8 years running.
The Earthquakes were drawn into Group 5 of the group stage along with fellow MLS side the Montreal Impact and Heredia of Guatemala. San Jose plays its first two matches in the tournament on the road before closing at Group 5 play with two straight at Buck Shaw Stadium. The first of these four crucial games is tonight in Montreal.
While the Quakes qualified for the CCL by virtue of earning the 2012 Supporters’ Shield, the Impact advanced to the tournament by winning the Amway Canadian Championship this past spring. Yes, both teams are in MLS, but representation in the Champions League is determined by country. The USA sends four teams to the annual tournament — LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, and Sporting Kansas City are the other three domestic teams — while Canada sends one.
Playing a familiar foe in the group stage should prove an advantage to the Earthquakes since the team has already played the Impact in regular season action and has easy access to scouting materials. Of course, the converse is true, and the Quakes will not be able to sneak up on their Canadian foe. The good news for fans, the match could prove very entertaining as both sides come in with well thought out game plans.
So what will interim coach Mark Watson and his squad see from the Impact tonight? A quick glance at the MLS table shows that Montreal is earning the most points per game in the league this season and has the inside track on the 2013 Supporters’ Shield. After roaring out of the gate with 4 wins in 4 games and 10 wins in 14, the Impact have cooled off as of late and have collected 3 points in only once in their last 7 matches. Contrast that with the Earthquakes, who are the hottest team in the league over their last 6 games, and an interesting meeting between two teams moving in opposite directions presents itself.
Montreal has slipped to third place in the Eastern Conference, and like San Jose, has stated that making the MLS postseason is the club’s priority. Head coach Marco Schallibaum will likely look to his bench to make out most of his starting lineup tonight, but he is still expected to give stars like Italian World Cup winner Alessandro Nesta and newly signed designated player Hernan Bernardello a run out. With an important match this weekend against the Chicago Fire on the horizon, Schallibaum is not expected to play Golden Boot chaser and MLS All-Star Marco Di Vaio — at least not from the start — in much the same way coach Watson could hold back Chris Wondolowski for the Earthquakes.
How will Montreal try to break down San Jose? Looking back to the meeting between the two teams back in May at Buck Shaw Stadium, the Impact likes to play its strengths in midfield to initial possession and have its forwards skirt the offside line looking to get behind the defense. Montreal is happy to keep possession whenever possible, especially on the ground, so staying disciplined on defense is vital. Finally, the Impact does not show a lot of pace on the wings, so counterattacking down the flanks will be important to the Quakes tonight.
San Jose will want to get a result tonight against Montreal in the club’s quest to advance from Group 5. Momentum surely favors the Quakes, but like Schallibaum’s squad selection, Watson’s choices will also play a big factor. While neither side will put forth its best starting eleven, each will test the depth of its roster in this midweek clash, and the team that gets comfortable first is likely to take the points.