For the first time since the 2010-11 edition, the CONCACAF Champions League will begin its quarterfinal round in the month of February, much to the dismay of Major League Soccer sides Montreal Impact and DC United. While their quarterfinal counterparts from Costa Rica, Mexico and Honduras are well into their respective campaigns, the MLS pair will play their first official matches of 2015 this week, making their first-leg contests away from home that much more challenging. Here's a look inside the four matchups:
DC United vs. Alajuelense
While winning the Austin armadillo trophy was no doubt a highlight for Ben Olsen's team, raising the CONCACAF trophy at the end of April would be far more rewarding for DC United, who are one of only two MLS teams to have actually won a CONCACAF championship. There was not a lot of change in the DC United squad over the summer, which is good news considering their stellar 2014 regular season. That squad consistency will help in Thursday's first leg in Alajuela.
Oscar Ramirez's team were CCL semifinalists last season and this season emerged from a group that included 2013-14 champions Cruz Azul. Alajuelense have also bulked up over the winter with several savvy signings, including Argentine fullback Leonel Peralta. Historically, winning in Costa Rica has been an impossible task for any MLS or national team side, so a draw or even a narrow loss would benefit DC United, and then a good performance in the return leg at a frozen RFK Stadium is a path to a semifinal berth.
Club America vs. Deportivo Saprissa
You could say this is a battle of CONCACAF royalty with five-time CONCACAF champions America facing three-time regional kings Saprissa. The Mexicans look as if they are rounding into form after head coach Gustavo Matosas switched to a 3-5-2 formation. Since the change, Las Aguilas have earned successive Liga MX wins over Chiapas and Pumas. The question for America is whether Matosas will roll out his starters for both affairs or perhaps for just one leg. The club's directors have expressed a desire to reach the Club World Cup, so the thinking is that a full-strength America will take to the field on Wednesday in San Jose.
Playing in the Saprissa Stadium won't be easy for Club America. Saprissa have won back-to-back domestic titles and boast a scoring threat in Ariel Rodriguez, who has five goals thus far in the tournament. Saprissa head coach Jeaustin Campos has rotated his squad in their domestic fixtures to make sure he has his strongest and fittest XI for the tie against America. Matosas' men will be favored, but recent history shows us that America can be susceptible to an upset against Costa Rican sides, evidenced by last season when Alajuelense dumped Miguel Herrera's America out of the CCL at the group stage with a 1-0 win at the Azteca.
Montreal Impact vs. Pachuca
MLS vs. Liga MX in a CCL knockout round series. MLS fans know all too well how this usually ends: elimination -- Seattle Sounders beating Tigres in 2013 the lone exception. History alone tells us that it is an uphill climb for the Canadians.
Plus, like DC United, Montreal are in the unenviable position of playing their first match of the season in their first-leg quarterfinal. The Impact have tried to make things easier by setting up preseason camp in Mexico City, so by the time they take the field on Tuesday, they will have been in Mexico just over two weeks. Part of that training regimen included a win over a Cruz Azul reserves team, but the real thing against the Tuzos will be something altogether different. Luckily for Montreal, it will help to have a player like Ignacio Piatti in the mix. The Argentine midfielder helped San Lorenzo win the 2014 Copa Libertadores and his international experience will be needed in Hidalgo.
Pachuca struggled at the beginning of the Liga MX Clausura, but appear to be hitting their stride after successive wins over Atlas and Leon. Jurgen Damm is a star in the making, as is fellow youngster Hirving Lozano. Montreal will have to keep their poise in the first leg. However, if Diego Alonso's men score a few early goals, things could become very bleak for Frank Klopas' side, making the return leg a mere formality.
Herediano vs. Olimpia
What's ironic about this matchup is that Herediano weren't even supposed to be here. The Costa Ricans didn't qualify for the 2014-15 CCL, but because the Belmopan Bandits of Belize were disqualified for failing to meet CONCACAF stadium requirements, Herediano were thrown into the group stage and managed to beat out Leon of Mexico and El Salvadorian side Isidro Metapan for top spot. Herediano strengthened their squad during January adding players like forward Cristian Lagos and Mexican defender Luis Hernandez, plus they will have danger man Yendrick Ruiz back from injury for the all-important second leg at home.
Olimpia are the lone Honduran representative among the final eight teams, but should not be overlooked. In Rommel Quioto and Antony Lozano, head coach Hector Vargas has two players who are capable of the spectacular -- just ask the Portland Timbers -- and Los Leones, despite all the exits in recent years of top players like Boniek Garcia and Roger Rojas, remain one of Honduras' best teams and are proving that in their current Clausura campaign. This could well be the most hotly contested of the four quarterfinals.