By Dylan Butler
The Mexican clubs are back. So is one team from U.S. Major League Soccer. But there will be no teams from the Caribbean in this season's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.
Mexican teams won each of the four groups, further proving the Mexican Primera Division is the strongest league in the region.
Cruz Azul was the only team to complete the group stage undefeated following a 2-1 win against Saprissa in Costa Rica Tuesday. Ramon Nunez and Pablo Zeballos struck for second half goals for La Maquina, which finished 5-1-0 in Group C. A year ago, Cruz Azul lost to Atlante in the two-leg finals.
"I saw a determined Saprissa squad, with a strong will, but they never dominated the match," Cruz Azul coach Enrique Meza said.
The victory, though, wasn't without cost as Alejandro Vela fractured his fibula early in the match and will be lost for the remainder of the season.
Led by Ulises Mendivil, who leads all scorers in the Champions League with nine goals, Pachuca also won five of six matches to cruise to the quarterfinals as the Group A winner.
Pumas' bid to go through undefeated was ruined Thursday night when Comunicaciones struck twice in the opening half for a 2-1 win in Guatemala City. But Pumas still finished atop Group D with 13 points to advance to the quarterfinals for a second straight year. That was the same total for Toluca, Group B winners, which finished the group stage with a 1-1 draw against D.C. United.
A year after just one Central American team advanced out of the group stage, the region sent three squads to the quarterfinals this time. Marathon returned to the knockout stage, clinching its berth on the final matchday. The Honduran side defeated San Juan Jabloteh 4-2 in Port-of-Spain on Thursday, ending D.C. United's hopes of advancement.
It is joined by Arabe Unido, which finished second in Group A, also clinching its berth on the final day of the group stage. The Panamanians lost to Pachuca 2-0, but were aided by Metapan, which stopped the Houston Dynamo from a second straight quarterfinal bid with its first group stage victory.
The third Central American squad to qualify for the knockout stage is Comunicaciones, which needed a win against Pumas on Thursday night to advance.
Major League Soccer sends one team to the quarterfinals for a second straight year as the Columbus Crew claimed the second berth out of Group C with a 1-1 draw against the Puerto Rico Islanders Tuesday night in Bayamon.
"The Champions League is very important," Columbus coach Robert Warzycha told MLSnet.com. "We are pleased that we are playing in the competition, but we're happy all the games are out of the way and we can concentrate on the league. We accomplished our goal, which is to get to the next round."
The quarterfinalists will learn their knockout round opponents on November 17 when the draw at the confederation's New York headquarters will set the pairings for the final eight.
The group winners will be drawn against one of the four teams that finished in second place, with no team playing another that it faced in the Group Stage in the two-leg series.
The teams that finished second will host the first leg of the quarterfinals the week of March 9-11, with the group winners hosting the second leg the week of March 16-18.