The first legs of the quarterfinals of the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League leave three match-ups well-balanced, and one seemingly already over. A quick recap and look forward before the second legs get underway.
Quarterfinal 1: Vancouver Whitecaps vs New York Red Bulls
The 'Caps are the top seed in the knockout rounds of this tournament and will carry home advantage all the way to the final, if they can get that far. The first test - RBNY - is going well enough after the first game. The Red Bulls created a lot of chances at home against Vancouver, but only put one away (and missed a penalty to boot). Meanwhile, Vancouver got an away goal that will define the second leg: the 1-1 tie in the first leg means RBNY has to score on the road at BC Place, and of course, it has to score more than the Caps, or at least match the home team's scoring.
The Red Bulls aren't a sit-back-and-counter sort of team anyway, but the need to get a goal has the potential to weigh increasingly heavily on the visitors in Vancouver. Home advantage is not the same as "home team always wins". These sides looked more or less evenly matched in the first leg: each burdened by not-entirely-ideal preseasons that have both squads a little banged up and manifestly still shaking off the cobwebs of the off-season.
RBNY needs to score, and will be well served by playing for the win (playing for a high-scoring draw, which would also get the Red Bulls through to the next round, isn't the traditional way to approach any game). Vancouver has already seen its defense lock out RBNY at Red Bull Arena (with 10 men for 20 minutes, no less), so the Caps will not lack confidence in their ability to keep their guests at bay.
Kicking off at 10:00 pm, Eastern, on March 2, the VWFC-RBNY match will be the last of the quarterfinal second legs to be played. Both sides already know what they need to do to make the semifinals, and they will also know who their potential semifinal opponent will be before they start their quarterfinal's decider.
Quarterfinal 2: Arabe Unido vs FC Dallas
MLS teams have a tough time getting themselves ready for CCL games in February because they are constrained by a Collective Bargaining Agreement that restricts the time permitted for preseason (as helpfully explained by Jesse Marsch at MLS Media Day).
This year, the three remaining MLS teams in CCL took different approaches to their preparations, which will make for interesting comparisons with the benefit of hindsight. RBNY followed the most conventional path: participating in a long-standing MLS preseason set-up in Tucson, Arizona. The Whitecaps usually go to the same camp in Arizona, but switched away from that plan to seek out fitter and fresher opponents in Wales, before squeezing in a more standard MLS preseason tournament in Portland. Finally, FCD tore up the MLS preseason handbook and went on a seemingly madcap adventure to Argentina, to play a full preseason's worth of friendlies in a week.
The method to Dallas' apparent madness was revealed in a confident and convincing win over Arabe Unido in the first leg of this match-up. The way to nullify the advantage an opponent has in playing the second leg at home is to put the series of out reach in the first game: losing by four goals sets Arabe Unido the formidable challenge of scoring at least four at home.
The Panamanian club is regarded as the weakest team remaining in the competition, but it is in the quarterfinals because is beat Liga MX's Monterrey in the group stage - twice. Arabe Unido has suffered the loss of key players during the winter transfer window and came into this game in indifferent form in the early stages of its Clausura campaign in Panama, but it is a team that did enough in the last phase of this tournament to command some respect.
FCD paid Arabe Unido respect by inconveniencing itself with a highly unorthodox preseason. The result means Dallas has no need for the traditional excuses MLS teams offer at this stage of CCL, and also makes it the prohibitive favorite to advance from this quarterfinal.
The second leg of the quarterfinal between FC Dallas and Arabe Unido kicks off at 8:00 pm, Eastern, on March 1, in Panama.
Quarterfinal 3: Pachuca vs Saprissa
There was a time when Pachuca looked like the best team in this season's CCL. Los Tuzos probably ought still to be regarded as the favorite to win this year's tournament: they are third in the Liga MX table at the moment, and recent results included a home win and road draw against the other Mexican teams (Tigres and Pumas) still in the competition.
Recent results in CCL have pointed to perhaps a little difficulty against competent opponents on the road. In its closing game of the group stage, Pachuca let a 4-2 lead slip in Honduras, conceding twice in the closing minutes and therefore getting dangerously close to being bounced out of CCL altogether by Olimpia. But the 4-4 tie was good enough to see Los Tuzos through.
In these quarterfinals, Pachuca once again stumbled slightly in Central America. Again, however, the 0-0 tie with Saprissa in the first leg of this match-up was adequate. Costa Rican heavyweight Saprissa did well to keep a clean sheet, but also needed a goal out of the first leg to be considered in any way favorite to advance.
On its home ground (where it has enjoyed an unbeaten start to the 2017 Clausura in Liga MX), Pachuca should have an extra gear and is duly expected to move ahead to the semifinals - where it will almost certainly face FC Dallas and yet another challenging test on the road.
This will be the first of the quarterfinal second legs to be played, kicking off at 10:00 pm, Eastern, on February 28.
Quarterfinal 4: UNAM Pumas vs UANL Tigres
The battle of Liga MX's big cats tilted Pumas' way in the first leg. Eduardo Vargas opened the scoring for Tigres in the first half, but Matias Britos found an equalizer for UNAM in the 62nd minute, and Pumas take the advantage of an away goal to their home ground for the second leg.
Pumas' current form is troubling: they closed out a winless February with a 4-3 loss to Queretaro in Liga MX on February 25. But they have the chance to start March off right by turning the 1-1 draw they brought back from the first leg at Tigres into a place in the semifinals with a solid performance at home on March 1.
Tigres recently snapped its own losing skid in Liga MX, but it also in unconvincing form. It has only won twice so far in 2017, but a CCL semifinal would perhaps take the edge off a slow start to the Liga MX Clausura.
The winner of this match-up plays the winner of the VWFC-RBNY quarterfinal in the next round. Pumas and Tigres kick off their quarterfinal second leg on March 1 at 10:00 pm, Eastern.