Champions League

FARLEY | Timbers' shot at Club América is what Champions League is all about

20210416 ccl quarterfinal creative america rotator

There are two teams running away from the rest of Liga MX right now, and one will be at Providence Park on April 28. That’s when the Portland Timbers begin their next round of Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League play, with one of the titans of North American soccer, Mexico’s Club América, venturing north to start the teams’ quarterfinal matchup.

That match will the second of a Wednesday night SCCL doubleheader and kickoff at 7:30 p.m. Pacific. The final leg will take place a week later in Mexico, with the Timbers’ match at historic Estadio Azteca set for a 7:15 p.m. Pacific start.

This was the matchup many wanted when the SCCL draw unfolded – the type of matchup that was inevitable if the Timbers played to their potential. You always want to be successful, and sometimes, being successful involves having an easier path. But when it comes competitions like CCL, an easier path isn’t the only virtue. For a team like the Timbers who hadn’t been in Champions League for five years before this tournament, CCL is also an occasion, as well as a proving ground. And there may be no greater occasion than a chance to at Las Aguilas at Estadio Azteca.

Consider what these nights might mean for Portland’s Diegos, Chara and Valeri. Ahead of the team’s Round of 16 trip to Honduras to face CD Marathón, Valeri talked about the significance of Champions League, and the idea of never knowing when you’ll get these opportunities again. Both he and Chara have played in competitions like these before, but they’re both in their mid-30s, now. When they take the field against América, it will not only be a new memory in their storied careers, but it might be the last time they’re part of that kind of occasion. Valeri knows how special these nights are.

The matchup is not only about the club legends, though. For Portland’s younger players, this is part of a dream come true. Zac McGraw was taking his last classes at the United States Military Academy a year ago. Now, he’ll be going to Mexico. Blake Bodily had his first professional season sent into chaos by last year’s pandemic. Now, he might play at Azteca. Veterans who’ve fought year after year for their place in MLS are going to get another return for the persistence, while players who’ve fought to overcome injuries can see the nights at Azteca and Providence Park as part of their rewards.

In terms of the competitive part of that equation, though, América might be the second-hottest team in the region. The only one that’s hotter, Cruz Azul, has won 12 league games in a row, yet they only have a two-point lead on América in the Liga MX standings. Over the course of Mexico’s Clausura, América is 11-2-1, has won seven straight, a defeated reigning Concacaf champions Tigres UANL 3-1 this weekend in Nuevo León.

Some names on América’s team will be among the most famous in Mexican soccer. Guillermo Ochoa, capped 111 times by the Mexican national team, is their starter in goal. Former LA Galaxy Best XI midfielder Giovanni Dos Santos is one of the team’s attacking options. Defender Jorge Sánchez, midfielders Sebastián Córdova and Mauro Lainez, and forward Henry Martín have all been involved in national team camps during the last year. In terms of Mexican talent alone, América has a stacked roster.

Then there’s 25-year-old Richard Sánchez, a Paraguayan international who is among the team’s assist leaders from midfield. Argentina veteran Emmanuel Aguilera and 21-year-old Uruguayan Sebastián Cáceres are mainstays in defense. Argentine midfielder Leandro Suárez and Uruguayan attacker Federico Viñas are valuable attacking pieces, while Colombian international Roger Martínez scored twice at Tigres as the team’s starting forward. América is a team that’s leveraged Mexico’s depth of talent and Liga MX’s drawing power throughout Latin America to build one of the region’s strongest squads.

If, for Major League Soccer teams, Champions League has become more than a tournament — if it’s also an occasion, as well as a testing ground — this is a dream matchup for Portland: Las Aguilas, under Providence Park’s lights; a matchup that will be in the region’s focus; the occasion of a second leg at Azteca; the test of one of the continent’s best.

It may only be a quarterfinal, but it’s also a reward for what the Timbers won last summer. This is what Champions League is all about.

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