StevieG and Gio are solucky they joined the Galaxy just before the first round of the CONCACAF Champions League started (eye roll). Gerrard actually won the UEFA Champions League in 2005 so it’s conceivable that the following thought has crossed his mind: “Hey, doesn’t this confederation have a Champions League and, if so, why haven’t I heard anything about it? It would be kind of cool to be the first person to win both the CONCACAF and UEFA Champions League.” There are reasons we kept you in the dark about CONCACAF until after you joined the team, Stevie.
Gio, you already know CONCACAF’s dark secrets… In fact, you’re only just joining us after having sojourned in CONCACAF for the past month at that travesty of a competition we call the Gold Cup. What can we tell Stevie about CONCACAF? It’s a land of appalling officiating and criminal flopping, of parking the bus and fields that more closely resemble demilitarized zones than proper football pitches. The travel is far and the vuvuzelas are plenty.
As one of only two men currently coaching in MLS who’s actually won this nutty competition before, Bruce Arena knows better than most what the task at hand entails. Okay, technically Bruce and Sigi Schmid won the CONCACAF Champions Cup (Bruce with D.C. United in 1998 and Sigi with the LA Galaxy in 2000), before it was renamed the CONCACAF Champions League in 2008, but same difference. The LA Galaxy surely have the talent to win the CONCACAF Champions League but Bruce must wonder to himself if the tragi-comical road he must hoe to reach the promise land is worth the trouble?
The format for the CONCACAF Champions League is actually the least weird thing about it. Twenty-four teams compete: nine from North America, twelve from Central America and three from the Caribbean. In MLS, teams qualify by winning (a) the MLS Cup; (b) the Supporter’s Shield; (c) the Lamar Hunt Open Cup; (d) the Canadian Championship; or (e) getting the highest number of league points in the conference that does not win the Supporter’s Shield. The teams are seeded into three pots and then are drawn into eight groups of three with each group containing one team from each of the three pots. In the group stage, each team plays the other two in its group on a home and away round-robin basis.
As winners of the 2014 MLS Cup, the Galaxy qualified for the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League. This is the fifth time the Galaxy has qualified for the Champions League. The Galaxy has never lost a Champions League game at home. For once the Galaxy actually have a pretty favorable draw, having been paired with the champions of the Trinidad and Tobagan-based TT Pro League, Central FC, and the champions of the Guatemalan-based Liga Nacional de Fútbol, C.S.D. Comunicaciones.
It all kicks off for the Galaxy on Thursday night at the StubHub Center when our boys take on Central FC. What do we know about the TT Pro League, you ask? Well, it’s one of the less prominent leagues in CONCACAF, which suggests that Central FC is the “minnow” of this particular group (fitting since Central FC’s nickname is ‘The Sharks’). This is the first trip to the Champions League for Central FC as 2015 is the first season that the Sharks won the TT Pro League (indeed the team itself is only a few years old). The entire roster of Central FC players is composed of native Trinidad and Tobagans so this may be the first time that many of these players have ever played an international club match in North America. The team is managed by former England international, Tottenham Hotspur and Queens Park Rangers defender, Terry Fenwick. Central’s two big goalscorers are 27-year-old Trinidad and Tobagan international midfielder Atuallah Guerra (who scored 15 goals during the 2014-15 season) and its captain, attacking midfielder Marvin Oliver (who scored 9 goals during the 2014-15 season).
The big question for Bruce is what type of lineup to put forward on Thursday. In all likelihood, Bruce wants to knock out the Galaxy’s first two CONCACAF Champions League games with decisive wins, since the first two games are being played at home (the Galaxy’s home game against C.S.D. Comunicaciones is on August 18), so that he can get away with sending the kids to Trinidad & Tobago and Guatemala later this fall. There’s no way Arena will make Gerrard or Keane travel midweek to stay at some sugar plantation in Trinidad to play a soccer game in Couva, a town of 21,000, where Central FC is located. Since the quickest path to victory entails fielding something resembling an A-team, Bruce may start his stars and hope to run up a quick lead so that he can yank any players he wants to be able to go the full 90 this weekend against Seattle.
On the other hand, given the physical style of play employed in Trinidad & Tobago, Bruce may not want to risk putting any of his high priced assets on the field if he thinks he can nick a win with the youngsters. He may put Gio, Keano and Gerrard on the bench to see how the kids fare in the first half and only call in the big guns if needed. However, Thursday is Gio’s first opportunity to get some minutes with his new team and since there’s really no substitute for game minutes, Arena may want to play Gio for a half, if only to see if the left abductor strain that kept him out of several Gold Cup matches is still bothering him.
Assuming the Galaxy win on Thursday and on August 18 against C.S.D. Comunicaciones, it’s safe to predict that Arena will avoid adding unnecessary travel miles and field minutes in unpredictable conditions to Keane, Gerrard or Gio dos Santos. My guess is that either Juninho or Omar will have the lucky unlucky task of captaining the team on its Champions League away games this fall. And the roster for those matches? Hey Nacho, Sebastian, Raul, Oscar, BJ… you guys like calypso music? Greeeaaaaat.
The LA Galaxy host Central FC this Thursday at the StubHub Center at 7 p.m.