The 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League rolls on without the New York Red Bulls. The semifinal stage features, as you might expect, just four of the 24 teams who started the competition back in August, 2016. For the first time in this tournament, we will see the MLS - Liga MX match-ups the organizers crave. As is always the case, the Mexican teams are favorites to progress to the final, but there have been upsets in the past and we'll see an upset (or two) again this year.
The four remaining teams are seeded and paired as follows:
Tigres UANL (5) vs Vancouver Whitecaps (1)
FC Dallas (7) vs Pachuca (3)
Teams will play each other home and away with the winner decided by aggregate score.
The higher-seeded teams will have home field advantage for the series, hosting the second leg. Away goals are the tie-breaker if aggregate scores are level at the end of 90 minutes of the second leg. If the teams are tied on aggregate goals and away goals after two legs, there will be extra time. Away goals no longer apply as a tiebreaker in extra time. If scores are still tied after extra time, there will be a penalty shoot-out.
Point of information: for those who question whether "second leg at home" is really an advantage in series of this type, the quarterfinals were inconclusive. Two higher-seeded teams (Pachuca and Vancouver) won their quarterfinals and two (Pumas and Arabe Unido) lost. It might, however, be argued that the on-paper favorite in each series - based on apparent roster strength - won in each case, with the exception of the RBNY-Vancouver quarterfinal, which had no clear favorite but in which the Whitecaps did make effective use of the advantage they received from the higher seeding.
Semifinal 1: Tigres UANL (5) vs Vancouver Whitecaps (1)
1st leg: March 14 - kickoff: 10:00 pm, Eastern
2nd leg: April 5 - kickoff: 10:00 pm, Eastern
How they got here:
Vancouver swept through the Group Stage with a perfect record: 4-0-0, including home and away wins over MLS rival Sporting Kansas City. In the quarterfinals, the Whitecaps faced another MLS foe: the New York Red Bulls. Despite injuries to key players, the Caps had the better of RBNY over both legs. Opting for a counter-attacking game-plan in both games, Vancouver ceded a lot of possession to the Red Bulls but took a tie, 1-1, out of the first leg (RBNY missed a penalty) and wrapped up the series with a 2-0 win in the second leg.
Tigres UANL lost to Plaza Amador in the Group Stage, setting themselves up for the potential to be knocked out of the tournament if they lost their last group game - at home against Herediano. But Tigres cruised into the quarterfinals with a 3-0 win over their Costa Rican challenger.
In the quarterfinals, Tigres appeared to have handed the advantage to Pumas after allowing their Liga MX rival to get out of the first leg with a draw and a potentially crucial away goal. But on the road in the second leg, UANL trampled UNAM, winning 3-0 and cantering into the semifinals.
Where they are now:
The Caps have suffered a bit of a CCL hangover, kicking off their 2017 MLS campaign with a scoreless draw at home with Philadelphia Union, and following that with a 3-2 road loss to San Jose. In the more recent game, Vancouver was up two goals and down a man (goalkeeper David Ousted was red-carded) before the 25th minute.
The Caps have fewer reported fitness issues than they did for the quarterfinals. Christian Bolanos, Cristian Techera (second-highest scorer in this edition of CCL at the moment), and Nicolas Mezquida have all seen playing time in MLS after sitting out the last round of Champions League games. Newcomers to the squad Fredy Montero and Brek Shea did contribute to the win over RBNY and are a little more advanced in their integration with their new team since then.
Tigres came into the quarterfinals of CCL trailing a worrying string of losses in Liga MX. But the team is unbeaten in its last five games in all competitions. In the only league game it has played since the quarterfinals, UANL beat Puebla, 2-0. The team is still outside the top eight places in the Liga MX table - but it is only one point shy of Santos Laguna with ample time to make a run and clinch a playoff place.
Players to watch:
Cristian Techera was Vancouver's top scorer in the Group Stage, and he is still second-highest scorer in the competition despite missing out on the quarterfinals. But Fredy Montero was brought to the Caps to score goals and has the ability to trouble even a very good Liga MX opponent, such as Tigres.
The Tigres squad is star-studded. Jurgen Damm unpicked Pumas in the quarterfinals. Chilean Eduardo Vargas is starting to settle in with his new team. But Andre-Pierre Gignac is a high-volume scorer in Liga MX and is the player perhaps most likely to send UANL fans home happy. He isn't the key to any game Tigres play - the squad has too many attacking weapons to be shut down if just one player is misfiring - but he is due: the first leg of the semifinals will be his third game since his last goal for his club.
Prediction for first leg:
Tigres hasn't won at home since January. Expect them to put that right in the first leg.
Tigres 2-0 Vancouver
Semifinal 2: FC Dallas (7) vs Pachuca (3)
1st leg: March 15 - kickoff: 8:00 pm, Eastern
2nd leg: April 4 - kickoff: 10:00 pm, Eastern
How they got here:
Pachuca looked to be headed for maximum points in the Group Stage but surprisingly stumbled in its last game, and survived a fight back from Olimpia in Honduras that saw the home team finish one goal short of knocking the Mexican club out. But Los Tuzos did make it through to the knockout rounds and handled the tricky test posed by Saprissa very well. In Costa Rica in the first leg, Pachuca got out with a scoreless draw, and then punched four unanswered goals past Saprissa in the second leg.
FC Dallas made heavy weather of the Group Stage, dropping points home and away and heading into a final game in Guatemala needing not to lose to stay in the competition. But FCD rose to the occasion against Suchitepequez, winning 5-2 to clinch a spot in the knockout rounds. The quarterfinal draw handed FCD a series against Arabe Unido. The Panamanian club had ousted Monterrey from the tournament and Dallas showed no sign of taking its knockout round opponent lightly. The MLS team opted for a highly unconventional preseason: a solid week of games in Argentina. It paid off: FCD won the first quarterfinal leg, 4-0, and took a 2-1 loss in Panama to cruise into the semifinals.
Where they are now:
Pachuca has lost twice in Liga MX in 2017. Los Tuzos are currently second in the table, and beat Tijuana - also among the league's leaders - 3-2 on the road in their last outing.
FCD opened its MLS season with a 2-1 away win over LA Galaxy, and then sent a mostly second-team to Kansas City, where a scoreless draw was secured. The early sense of Dallas' form in the league is the preseason in Argentina has quickly warmed up a squad that has chemistry and depth.
Players to watch:
Pachuca's Hirving Lozano, the prodigiously talented CCL top scorer is out for a while after Michael Orozco took a chunk out of his ankle in Los Tuzos' last Liga MX game. MLS fans will be familiar with defender Omar Gonzalez, who made his name at LA Galaxy. But look out for Jonathan Urretaviscaya. The Uruguayan midfielder posted a goal and two assists in Pachuca's 4-0 filleting of Saprissa in the quarterfinals.
Attackers get a lot of attention in previews of this sort, but there is important work to do on the other side of the ball. FC Dallas did well to snap up Carlos Gruezo from Stuttgart, where he had fallen out of favor despite becoming the first Ecuadorian to score in Bundesliga. There aren't many players in MLS with experience in one of Europe's top leagues, and there are even fewer that are only 21 years old. The young holding midfielder has an important job to do for FCD in limiting Pachuca's attacking opportunities, and he has already accumulated sufficient exposure to a high level of soccer that he should not be fazed by the prospect of facing a Liga MX opponent.
Prediction for first leg:
FCD would like another big first-leg win, but that seems unlikely. Still, the team has started the year well and has been focusing on playing exactly this level of opponent since it gathered for preseason. Backing Dallas to catch Pachuca a little cold send this semifinal back to Mexico well poised.
FCD 2-1 Pachuca