The 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League is back for the conclusion of the semifinals. The first legs were both won by the home teams: UANL Tigres picked up a 2-0 win over Vancouver Whitecaps; FC Dallas fought back from a goal down to edge Pachuca, 2-1.
The second legs will see the finalists for this year's competition selected. Before digging into the match-ups, a refresher on the rules of these CCL knockout rounds:
The four remaining teams are seeded and paired as follows:
Tigres UANL (5) vs Vancouver Whitecaps (1)
FC Dallas (7) vs Pachuca (3)
The winner of each semifinal is decided by aggregate score over two legs.
The higher-seeded teams 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.
Semifinal 1: Tigres UANL (5) vs Vancouver Whitecaps (1)
1st leg: Tigres 2-0 VWFC
2nd leg: April 5 - kickoff: 10:00 pm, Eastern
How they got here:
Vancouver clinched the top seed for the knockout rounds with a perfect group stage performance: four wins out of four. Along the way, the Whitecaps twice beat fellow MLS side Sporting Kansas City. In the quarterfinals, another MLS opponent was bested: the New York Red Bulls were beaten 3-1 on aggregate. So we know VWFC can handle MLS teams in CCL. Liga MX sides are, of course, another question entirely.
Tigres unexpectedly dropped points in Panama in the group stage, losing 1-0 to Plaza Amador. But the Mexican heavyweight (a CCL finalist in last year's edition) made light work of a low seed, trouncing Pumas UNAM, 3-0, in the away leg of their quarterfinal after being held 1-1 at home. It is that result which should cause Vancouver some concern: Tigres can get results on the road - indeed, though it has only won three of its first 11 games in the ongoing Liga MX Clausura, two of those wins were away from home.
Where they are now:
Vancouver was struggling a little with form and fitness of key players when it last played Tigres. Since then, the squad's injury problems have receded and the Caps have recorded their first win of the new MLS season. The 4-2 win over LA Galaxy was timely - especially since Vancouver traded away highly-rated attacker Kekuta Manneh to Columbus, bringing in robust midfielder Tony Tchani in return. A flurry of goals helped to allay concerns that the Caps were weakening themselves in a key part of the field for the forthcoming CCL game - because Vancouver will need to score at least twice to stay alive in this competition. Even a two-goal win won't be enough if Tigres get an away goal, but the likes of Tchani will be asked to shore up the Caps' defense as the team chases the brace it requires.
As is its right, Vancouver seems to have decided that the elements will be the club's 12th man against Tigres. The roof at BC Place will be open, and the Caps are hoping Canada itself will prove unsettling to its Mexican visitors.
Tigres haven't won a game or scored a goal since beating Vancouver in the first leg of this semifinal. The team followed that 2-0 win with a scoreless draw on the road with Cruz Azul in Liga MX on March 18. On April 1, Leon took three points away from a trip to UANL, thanks to a 1-0 win.
But there is a strong suspicion that UANL is not fully-focused on Liga MX at the moment. Indeed, as noted by Goal.com's Jon Arnold, the club allowed its league form to drift the last time it was involved in CCL - and seems to be following a similar strategy this time around. Tigres made the Copa Libertadores final in the summer of 2015 and the 2015-16 CCL final in April, 2016. Both were lost.The team is chasing its third international tournament final in three years, and it will hope to be third-time-lucky and lift a trophy by the end of this month.
Players to watch:
Vancouver Whitecaps - Fredy Montero
Montero scored his first goal in MLS since returning to the league this season. A proven goal scorer for just about every team he has ever played for, the Colombian forward was brought to Vancover for games like this. Few will expect the Caps to overturn a two-goal deficit and get to the CCL final; equally, few will be surprised if Montero confounds those expectations.
UANL Tigres - Andre-Pierre Gignac
The obvious choice, but Gignac has yet to score in this edition of CCL. He's the star striker on a star-studded team, and if Tigres were to be upset by Vancouver, there would be much attention paid to absence of goals from UANL's star man.
Can't see VWFC quite having enough to beat Tigres: 1-1 in the secon leg for a 3-1 aggergate win for UANL.
Semifinal 2: FC Dallas (7) vs Pachuca (3)
1st leg: FCD 2-1 Pachuca
2nd leg: April 4 - kickoff: 10:00 pm, Eastern
How they got here:
A 4-4 draw with Olimpia in Honduras in its last game of the group stage saw Pachuca forced to settle for a lower-than-expected seeding (and flirt with elimination altogether - Olimpia briefly threatened an upset) for the knockout rounds. In the quarterfinals, Los Tuzos took a scoreless draw out of Costa Rica and beat Saprissa 4-0 in the second leg.
FC Dallas seemed to be struggling a little throughout the group stage, and was losing 2-0 to Suchitepequez in Guatemala after 22 minutes of its final game in Group H - but the MLS team bounced back, scored five, and qualified for the knockout rounds.
FCD impressed those MLS observers who think the league's CCL qualifiers don't try nearly hard enough to prepare specifically for the tournament by scheduling an unorthodox preseason: a solid week of games in Argentina preceded the team's first leg against Arabe Unido. The trip to South America did exactly what it was supposed to: FCD beat this year's CCL surprise quarterfinalists (the Panamanian club ousted Liga MX's Monterrey in the group stage) 4-0 in the first leg. A 2-1 loss in Panama closed out a 5-2 aggregate win.
Where they are now:
Pachuca has played twice in Liga MX since losing to FCD in the first leg of their CCL semifinal - losing, 3-0, on the road to Querataro and tying Puebla, 0-0. Not outstanding for, but Los Tuzos have at least got (current CCL top scorer) Hirving Lozano back from injury.
FCD's last outing in MLS was a 2-1 home in over New England Revolution on March 18. Since then, the club's focus has been unapologetically on CCL. The squad has been in Mexico for about a week, recently scrimmaging Puebla's reserves as part of its preparations. Whatever the result in Pachuca in the second leg, one cannot Dallas' commitment to CCL: it has made the tournament the clear priority of the early stages of its 2017 season.
Players to watch:
Pachuca - Hirving Lozano
"Chucky" was injured for the first leg of Pachuca's semifinal against Dallas, but he should be ready for the second leg. The 21-year-old is one of the most highly-rated young players in Mexico, and has recently confirmed he feels ready to make a move to Europe. This tournament might be one of his last opportunities to pick up a trophy with Pachuca, as well as a chance to bolster his transfer market value by adding further to his career highlight reel.
He is also currently the top scorer in CCL 2016-17, and Dallas will do well to keep from extending his lead in the race for the tournament's Golden Boot.
FC Dallas - Kellyn Acosta
FCD's top-scorer in this edition of CCL, the 21-year-old midfielder might not be far behind Pachuca's Lozano in terms of a move to Europe. He started to accumulate US Men's National Team caps last year, and looks quite capable of establishing himself at the international level, especially as goals seem to be an increasing part of his game recently.
Thinking FCD might surprise Pachuca, grab a goal and force a penalty shootout, but that's where this prediction ends: 2-1 to Los Tuzos after 120 minutes to see the series tied at 3-3. The team that holds its nerve at the penalty spot to prevail.