Both the Columbus Crew and Real Salt Lake said Monday they were pleased to learn they'll face off in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League when the tournament resumes in late February.
And both sides are pointing to the fact that they won't face the disadvantage of playing an in-season Mexican team as in years past, but rather an MLS opponent still in preseason and not entirely fit.
“We’re going to have the same preparation for the game,” Crew coach Robert Warzycha said. “It’s not playing a Mexican team that’s already in the season.”
The Crew faced Mexican club Toluca last March in the 2009-10 quarterfinals, and were at a disadvantage because Columbus were still in the preseason while Toluca were playing Primera División matches.
“They were already 11 games into the season,” Warzycha said. “That’s a little bit different. We’ll have the same start [as RSL].”
Real Salt Lake's Nat Borchers echoed those sentiments
“I guess from the standpoint of it being a familiar opponent its good for us that we know what they bring to the table," the defender told ESPN Radio 700 in Salt Lake City. "It’s not going to be one of those grainy photo shoots … where we are trying to figure out what they bring to the table. We know what they have, and they’re a very good team in MLS. Obviously they’ve shown over the past three years how good they can be. So I think it’s going to be difficult.”
The series will open between Feb. 22-24 in Columbus before it wraps at Rio Tinto Stadium between March 1-3.
“Competitively, the 2010-11 CONCACAF Championship Stage draw between Real Salt Lake and the Columbus Crew has resulted in a level playing field due to both teams being at the same stage of preseason and hailing from similar climates in February and March," RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey said.
Crew technical director Brian Bliss said that the draw comes as welcome news after a string of scheduling complaints from US-based teams who are traditionally still working out early-season kinks and formulating their lineups.
“Our league and [US Soccer] have probably lobbied CONCACAF enough ... [saying] that our calendars don’t match up in that we’re coming out of preseason, that they probably asked them to try to level it out,” Crew technical director Brian Bliss said. “When our teams are in form, we can compete. I think this is a way to do it.”
The winner of the series plays either Saprissa of Costa Rica or Honduras’ Olimpia in the semifinals, while the four Mexican teams (Toluca, Cruz Azul, Santos and Monterrey) are on the other side of the bracket.
The first leg of the semifinals will be between March 15-17 and the second leg April 5-7.
“That’s favorable as well,” Bliss said. “At least by the time those games are played, you’ve got a couple of meaningful [MLS] games played. We can hang with those teams [Saprissa and Olimpia] – no disrespect to them – not being in our best form early on in the year better than we can with the Mexican teams.”
Warzycha doesn’t feel the Crew will have any advantage over Real Salt Lake in preparing for the early dates because of last year’s experience. He noted the quarterfinal games against Toluca were two weeks later than what they will prepare for in 2011.
“If we had matches March 9 and March 16 [this year], we would go the same path, but we have to start earlier and find some competition so we can play some games,” he said.
As much as Warzycha likes the matchup against Real Salt Lake, he has always looked forward to playing the Mexican teams.
“Obviously playing Mexican teams is really, really challenging that time of year because they have a little bit different style,” he said. “They play different systems. It’s a good experience.”
Yet playing a familiar league foe may draw more interest in Columbus.
Asked if the series with Real Salt Lake could be a rematch of this year’s MLS Cup, Warzycha laughed and said, “I wouldn’t have anything against that.”
CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE DRAW
Quarterfinals (February 22-24 & March 1-3)
Toluca (MEX) vs. Monterrey (MEX)
Cruz Azul (MEX) vs. Santos Laguna (MEX)
Columbus Crew (USA) vs. Real Salt Lake (USA)
Saprissa (CRC) vs. Olimpia (HON)
Semifinals (March 15-17 & April 5-7)
Salt Lake-Columbus winner vs. Olimpia-Saprissa winner
Monterrey-Toluca winner vs. Santos-Cruz Azul winner
Finals (April 19-21 & April 26 & 28)
Santos-Cruz Azul/Monterrey-Toluca winner vs. Olimpia-Saprissa/Salt Lake-Columbus winner