By Dylan Butler
Alajuelense appears to be in the strongest position of any team to get into the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals from Group A. Yet it could just as easily find itself sitting home come March.
The Costa Rican club sits atop the group by three points, with Morelia and the LA Galaxy sharing second - all three challenging for the two berths into the knockout stage with the final round of the Group Stage looming.
Alajuelense must play Tuesday night at Morelia, and while only needing a draw, Morelia has won all three previous Champions League games at home this season and allowed only one goal.
It could also qualify if the Galaxy doesn't win at Motagua on Thursday.
But while the Galaxy have lost both away games so far, Motagua has lost all six Group Stage matches, has scored only two goals, and has won only once in its last 11 overall.
Morelia qualifies with a win, and could also reach the quarterfinals with a draw if Motagua either beats or draws with Los Angeles. The Galaxy, which beat Motagua 2-0 at home, qualifies with a win, or a draw if Alajuelense beats Morelia.
Alajuelense won the first meeting, beating Morelia 1-0 on a 77th-minute Jonathan McDonald goal on August 16 at Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto. The Costa Rican, though, is out for Tuesday's critical tilt with a suspension. He is also serving a seven-game domestic ban for his part in a brawl with Herediano on September 10.
Alajuelense has moved in front of Herediano atop the Costa Rican Invierno standings following a 3-0 win at San Carlos Saturday and has lost just once in its last five domestic matches.
Morelia is still middle of the table in the Mexican Apertura, but is coming off a 2-0 win against Tigres Friday night with Miguel Sabah breaking a scoreless deadlock in the 79th minute, and Jaime Lozano putting the match away from the penalty spot with two minutes remaining.
"It was good to play on Friday [because] Tuesday we have a game that is key to us," Morelia goalkeeper and captain Federico Vilar told Esto. "We must win at home to qualify and remain competitive in order to go to the Club World Cup."
Despite playing away from home, Los Angeles has an advantage taking on winless Motagua Thursday. The Galaxy continues to roll domestically, having won the Major League Soccer Supporters' Shield over a week ago, and defeating archrival Chivas USA 1-0 in the annual SuperClasio clash at the Home Depot Center. Chad Barrett scored the lone goal in the 53rd minute.
"It was another good win for our team," Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said. "I think in the first half, if we were a little sharper, we would have gotten a couple of goals, but that's not that way it goes.
"In the last 10 minutes we did a good job just holding onto the lead and winning the game. Obviously a very good season at home, a good effort by our group…We look forward to the game Thursday, which is certainly going to be a good one."
Los Angeles finished the MLS regular season unbeaten at home in 17 games, and has only four losses in 16 away games.
"We've always said we want to make our stadium somewhere to come that's hard to win, and I think we've obviously done that," midfielder David Beckham said. "We've worked hard on that, and it's important that we do that at home. The fans obviously are behind us, we got the support of them, so it's important we perform in our own stadium."
Motagua has the chance to play spoiler and will be looking to avenge its loss on August 16. The Ciclon Azul's struggles aren't limited to the CONCACAF Champions League. It's winless in five straight, including a 4-1 loss to Marathon on Sunday that kept it last in the Honduran Apertura.