by Dan Barkley

CCL group play starts tonight, including Toronto FC hosting Cruz Azul (8 PM ET, FSC). For the first time in the new format's young history we have two MLS sides in the same group (let's hope this is a regular occurrence in the future). Here's a quick look at the groups and what might be needed for the MLS teams to advance.


Group A: Toronto FC, Real Salt Lake, Cruz Azul, Árabe Unido

Cruz Azul is the most successful club in CONCACAF Champions Cup/League history, winning five titles and twice being runners-up. In the new format, they have finished second both years. Last year they were extremely impressive, winning five of their six group games, and losing just one match the entire tournament, the second leg of the Finals to Pachuca. Their path included hammering Columbus, 5-0 and 2-0 in group play, as well as eliminating Árabe Unido in the quarterfinals with wins of 1-0 and 3-0. The previous year saw them lose a few games along the way, but their wins included beating DC United twice in the group stages. Cruz Azul is clearly the favorite in this group; a strong Mexican club which has performed at its best during this competition.

Árabe Unido will hold the key for one of the MLS teams to advance. They have been the strongest club in Panama the past few seasons, winning three of the last four titles. They also made it to the quarterfinals in last years CCL, losing to Cruz Azul as mentioned above. Interestingly, in group stages last year Houston beat Árabe Unido both home and away, but the Dynamo were only able to take one point from their other four matches. Árabe Unido advanced with two wins over Metapan and one over Pachuca. Árabe Unido's only other meeting with an MLS side came in 2003, when Columbus eliminated them from the Champion's Cup.

This group looks to be very tough. Árabe Unido appear to be the weakest team overall, but considering their run last year, they will certainly pick up points, and especially at home. Cruz Azul is the certain favorite, and I see them winning four matches with their visits to Salt Lake City and Toronto the only places they may drop points. Toronto put forth a valiant effort in advancing this far, but with their injury troubles and inability to pick up points on the road, I think they'll finish last in the group, or a best take third from Árabe Unido with some away points. RSL has impressed me all season, and I expect them to take 7 or 9 points at home; with positive results at Toronto and in Panama they should advance alongside Cruz Azul.

Group B: Columbus Crew, Municipal, Santos Laguna, Joe Public

Municipal is the most successful Guatemalan club in history and have won 13 of 22 titles since they switched to the Apertura/Clausura system. They began in the group stage of the 2008 CCL, and picked up six points with three home draws and a win at Puerto Rico. They last time they played an MLS side they eliminated the previous incarnation of San Jose from the 2003 Cup. Interestingly, they did won the Champion's Cup back in 1974.

Joe Public is representing Trinidad and Tobago, impressively beating Costa Rican side Brujas in the preliminary round. The professional league in Trinidad and Tobago is very young, the previous leagues having folded or being reworked many times in the past. Since 2002 the TT Pro League has been the top league, and Joe Public has two of its eight titles including last year. They qualified for the CCL through the Caribbean Club Championship along with Puerto Rico Islanders and fellow TT club San Juan Jabloteh. Trinidad and Tobago teams have done a surprising job surviving the preliminary round in recent years, but usually find themselves in last place in their groups. Joe Public is responsible for on of MLS's most embarrassing CCL loses, humbling the Revolution 4-0 at Gillette Stadium and advancing 6-1 on aggregate.

Santos Laguna has been up and down in recent years in the Mexican League, almost being relegated a few years ago to reestablishing themselves as a top team in recent year; they finished as the runners up in the most recent season. They should be a fun club to watch, as they tend to score often, and may have a suspect defense. They've never been in a CCL/CCC final; in 2008 they made it to the semifinals after winning their group (which included Municipal). They went through the preliminary round this year, beating San Juan Jabloteh 6-0 on aggregate. They are not one of the strongest-preforming Mexican sides in international competition, but they still have to be the favorites to win the group.

The Crew got a fairly manageable draw, and if they don't advance it will be a huge disappointment. I think the have a decent shot at winning the group if they can get a result at home against Santos Laguna. At the risk of underestimating the competition, this should be a two horse race for the top spot. Both Columbus and Santos should win their games against Joe Public and Municipal, and the one that does the better job of taking care of business will come out on top.


Tomorrow we'll preview Seattle's tough Group C draw, along with a Group D which would have been a favorable draw for a certain MLS team that failed to advance.

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