Saprissa must strike first blow in CCL for themselves and for Central America

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Ezequiel Bercerra
Tuesday's first leg is critical if the Morados plan to make a statement in the last tournament to which Central American champs will directly qualify

More than just one league is looking at this year's Concacaf Champions League to get a little respect.

The CCL often is seen as a measuring stick for MLS. The budding league is desperate to win the competition for the first time and prove it can be taken seriously on the international level. No one is arguing MLS will soon reach that level, though, and there's certainly no talk about taking places away from the league.

Central America, on the other hand, has seen a shift in how its teams get into Concacaf's most important club tournament. This edition of the tournament is the last in which champions from the region will directly qualify. In the next go-round, the six teams that perform best in the Concacaf League will move into the CCL. That could work out well for a league like Costa Rica, with the chance of three teams finishing in the top six rather than the current max of two.

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It also means, however, that Costa Rica could end up with no teams in the CCL. It adds matches to an already congested fixture list. More than anything the decision, which Saprissa president Juan Carlos Rojas recently tweeted was "effectively a unilateral decision" that hurt Costa Rican teams, seems like a slap in the face to clubs in the region.

The best way to respond to a decision that isn't going to change would be to slap right back. Costa Rican clubs often have been raided for talent by MLS and Liga MX, with players showing promise quickly snapped up by clubs in better financial positions. Since putting two teams in the semifinals in the 2014-15 tournament, there has been little for Costa Ricans to celebrate in CCL. Concacaf can point to this as good reason for its move, which ideally puts Central American (or Caribbean) teams in good form in the CCL rather than hoping the champion with the best aggregate record is still a solid side up to a year after qualification.

Yet, there's still a deep history in the region, and the Costa Rican team's success hasn't been an accident. Saprissa won Concacaf three times before the current Champions League format was adopted in 2008, the most recent triumph coming in 2005. Alajuelense and Cartagines also have titles to their names. 

Saprissa is profiling as the region's best chance for a spoiler this time around. Independiente of Panama and Alianza of El Salvador both are off to flying starts in their domestic campaigns. Yet they may be doomed by tough draws, with the Panamanian newcomers facing a potentially brutal return leg in frigid Toronto and Alianza playing Liga MX leaders Monterrey.

"Saprissa always will be and is one of the big clubs in Costa Rica, apart from the stage it's in. It's a team that's representative of this country," Tigres manager Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti said Monday at a news conference. "We know the importance that has and we're going to take this game with every bit of respect.

"I don't know who has said that we're the favorites. We're 11 v. 11. That's how we always think. I don't know why you're putting labels on it. We're not taking it like that."

Fellow Costa Rican side Herediano is yet to sort itself out, sitting in the bottom half of the league. Four straight matches undefeated plus the "Medford magic" brought by Team boss Hernan Medford may help the current Concacaf League champion spring a surprise against Atlanta United, but it isn't looking likely.

It's not that Los Morados don't face a stiff test as well. While Tigres manager Ferretti hasn't historically put much emphasis on the CCL, a few factors could change that this year. For one, there's pressure from above and below. The club's directors and the fans are hoping to see the club win its first international title  

Saprissa

The other factor is across town, where Rayados are setting their eyes on a fourth CCL crown. Tigres certainly had bragging rights after winning the Final Regia. Crashing out of this competition and seeing Rayados celebrate in Monterrey's Macroplaza would shift the balance a bit.

But with its history as a Concacaf champion under the tournament's previous format and its good form in the opening months of 2019, Saprissa is the most responsible for striking a blow for Central America.

Tuesday's opening leg will be absolutely critical to the club's chances of getting through. The club is asking fans to show up early for the 7 p.m. local kickoff with the idea that a full Estadio Saprissa will help the home team gain an edge at home. Perhaps more helpful will be the absence of key Tigres players including forward Andre-Pierre Gignac, midfielder Guido Pizarro or winger Jurgen Damm for the first leg. Gignac reportedly is carrying a knock on his knee, though it seems more precautionary with Tigres playing a league game Friday after Saturday's thrilling 3-2 win over Necaxa and the Tuesday CCL contest.

Saprissa has gotten production from veteran attackers like Cristian Bolanos, Jairo Arrieta and Johan Venegas so far this season while being stingy at the back thanks to the contributions of goalkeeper Aaron Cruz and veteran center backs Aubrey David and Michael Barrantes.

That said, they aren't used to facing attackers like those Tigres employ, and the talent gap is still significant. Enner Valencia and Eduardo Vargas will lead the line without Gignac. Mexico international defenders Carlos Salcedo, Hugo Ayala and Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez made the trip, and Ferretti will be confident the group he has can get a result and be in full control of the series when it's decided at El Volcan next week.

"We're expecting the best from Tigres, no matter who has come. It's a team that's a candidate to win the tournament, so the players are clear in what we want and all that's left now is for the game to start. You'll see our strategy, you have to wait, but the players know it," Saprissa manager Walter Centeno said. "We might have the ball for long stretches and not in others so we have to get used to the two phases. We're going to play with a team that knows that, and for my team that's fundamental."

For its own chances but also for Central America as a whole, Saprissa has to play a perfect game in front of its own fans to have a chance at pulling an upset and flying the flag for a region that hasn't been shown much respect lately. That won't change unless Saprissa or another team can produce the results on the field that few now believe them capable of producing.

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