Seattle enters the group stage of the 2010-2011 CONCACAF Champions League with a match that might serve as a replacement for the old "Is the glass half full or half empty?" question. If you're an optimist, you'll see this as a chance for the Sounders to establish themselves early as a real contender for a spot in the knockout round. If you're a pessimist, you'll be looking at Marathon's track record in this competition (two straight quarterfinal appearances, and they are to this point the only non-Mexican club to finish atop a CCL group) and thinking that opening up against them is not at all ideal.
From a neutral's perspective (I have good, recent reasons to dislike both teams), I'd say the optimists are probably more likely to see their perspective rewarded tonight. This Marathon side is not as strong as they were in previous CCLs, as several regulars for the Honduran national team have departed. The replacements coming in may one day match those players in stature, but at the moment they're probably not quite at that level. Still, Marathon is a proud organization. They're the only club in Honduras that owns their own stadium (the just-opened Estadio Yankel Rosenthal, named for the club's president), and there is a real drive throughout the club to be the top club in Central America both on and off the field. Teams with that kind of pressure on them tend to play above themselves, so I expect Marathon to be slightly tougher than they appear to be on paper.
Read on for a look at their likely starters:
Shane Orio (GK): Orio is new to Marathon, and as a result is something of an unknown. His past history includes a four year spell as the starter at Puntarenas FC in Costa Rica, as well as spending 2009-2010 sitting the bench for another Costa Rican club, AD Ramonense. It was something of a surprise to see him start in the qualifying round ahead of Orlin Vallecillo, who has seen CCL minutes in the past.
Erick Norales (right-center back): Norales has more experience in the center of a back four, but it appears that manager Nicolas Suazo is going to opt for a 3412 (that could rapidly turn into a 532 if the need arises). Norales is only 5'11" but his leaping ability and aggressive (but, for the most part, clean) style of play give the impression that he's a bit taller. He's a no-nonsense sort of center back, preferring to get the ball off his feet as quickly as possible. Norales is of average speed for a center back, and usually does a decent job of positioning himself so that faster players can't take advantage.
Astor Henriquez (center back): Marathon's captain was, in previous editions of the CCL, left out on occasion as El Monstruo Verde opted for a back four. Henriquez is almost like a sweeper, which makes the back three/five hybrid Marathon uses an ideal fit. He'll be the most likely source of passes out of the back; if Marathon wants to slow the game down, look for them to find Henriquez before exiting their defensive third (rather than going over the top hoping for someone to run onto the ball). To be blunt, I don't think Marathon is better off with Henriquez in. He's not particularly gifted at reading the game, is a bit small, and isn't anything special in terms of passing out of the back. Plus, the 3412 is a formation that, for the most part, has been figured out. If they're picking their formation to keep him on the field, Marathon has probably made a big mistake.
Milton Palacios (left-center back): The least well-known of the Palacios brothers (Johnny, Wilson, and Jerry were all on the Honduran World Cup squad), Milton was only a substitute on last year's Marathon team. Palacios has respectable speed and strength, but he's probably the weakest player along the back line with the ball. On an unfamiliar turf surface tonight, that could be a big problem for Marathon. On the other hand, Palacios is pretty good in the air and will be a threat to score on set pieces.
Mariano Acevedo (right midfield): Acevedo's something of a utility man, having appeared for Marathon at this position, right back, and defensive midfield in multiple formations (442, 433, and this 3412). Like most utility players, he's proficient at most relevant skills without standing out at anything in particular. He is a hard worker, and if memory serves he has a hard (if inaccurate) shot that he rarely uses. Acevedo's the kind of player that rarely wins you games, but is even less likely to make the mistake that costs you a result. There is a chance that Acevedo will line up centrally, with Machado or Carlos Palacios playing on the right side instead.
Adolfo Machado (defensive midfield): I've got to confess that I know very little about Machado, who only just joined Marathon from Panamanian side Alianza FC. Machado is listed as a defender, but most indications had him playing a very conservative, destructive role in the Marathon central midfield against Tauro FC in the qualifying round.
Carlos Palacios (defensive midfield): Another Palacios, though this one is, as far as I know, not related to the set of brothers that are all professionals. In last year's squad, Palacios was in and out of the team, despite earning some call-ups in qualifying for Honduras. Palacios is another player that is listed as a defender, but unlike Machado it seems likely that he'll spend at least some time on the ball. While his primary duties will be defensive, I'm expecting him to be something of a reference point in the Marathon midfield if they try to slow the game down.
Mario Berrios (left midfield): Berrios is probably the best player that Marathon can call on. He combines a high work rate and a really gritty approach to defending with a high soccer IQ. Off the ball, Berrios tends to cause lots of problems because he always finds a way to get himself into dangerous spots. He's also very smart about when to attack his defender 1v1 and when to simply play the easy pass to keep possession. Finally, perhaps the most difficult thing about Berrios is that he tends to win a lot of free kicks. Sometimes they're deserved, and sometimes they involve more than a little selling on his part, but in either case it sets Marathon up to make use of their athleticism and fearlessness in the box. Berrios is Marathon's penalty kick taker, though he's not exactly the most convincing shooter from the spot. If Seattle gives away a penalty, I'd give Kasey Keller a slightly better chance than normal of coming up with the save.
Reiniery Mayorquin (attacking midfield): Mayorquin is another example of Marathon promoting a second-choice player, this time to replace Guillermo Ramirez (who is now at Municipal). Mayorquin did get fairly regular minutes for Marathon in last year's CCL, but only as a substitute. In that time, you could see that Mayorquin loves to have a lot of touches and that he's got loads of confidence. Sometimes that can get the better of him, as he'll try the audacious when the simple option was looking pretty good. He also struck me as slightly temperamental, as he'd overreact a bit whenever fouled. Overall, he's not a bad player by any means, but teams usually play 3412 to defensively accommodate a particularly gifted playmaker. If that's why they play this way, I'm not sure Mayorquin is dangerous enough to justify it.
Randy Diamond (forward): The 23 year old Diamond will most likely drift into wide areas as well as slightly underneath Cardozo up front. A recent signing from fellow Honduran club Real Juventud, Diamond should be expected to put in an honest shift up front. That said, he's not just a blue-collar type; he'll be constantly looking for gaps to run into. As Marathon tends to attack in a direct fashion, it would not be a surprise to see early through balls or long-range passes over the top aimed at Diamond (or Cardozo) trying to run the channels.
Nicolas Cardozo (striker): His full name is Claudio Nicolas Cardozo Labarinas, and CONCACAF has presented both first names and both last names as the preferred one in referencing him. No matter what they call him, the Uruguayan is Marathon's most dangerous goal threat. He picked up three goals in the qualifying round, and it appears that this was a wise acquisition by Marathon (Cardozo was previously an opponent of Marathon's at CSD Vida). Look for him to lead the line ahead of Diamond primarily by emphasizing speed and physical contact.
Other players that might see significant minutes: Orvin Paz (defensive midfield) is a bit more cultured than Machado or Carlos Palacios would be in central midfield. If Suazo is concerned about his team's ability to keep the ball, Paz might even start. If Marathon needs a spark on offense, look for Carlos Will Mejia (attacking midfield/forward) to enter the fray. He's small, but tricky with the ball at his feet and fast to boot.
Overall: This is a somewhat weakened Marathon side, as players like Jerry Palacios, Walter Martinez, and the aforementioned Ramirez were replaced by either young players with potential or journeymen who had succeeded with lesser Honduran clubs. Still, they're going to be a very fast team that looks to emphasize their speed by playing quickly whenever possible. Look for early balls to the flanks or over the top of the defense. I would expect that Suazo has seen that Parke and Ianni are not particularly fast, so I'm expecting Marathon to attack Seattle down the middle fairly often.
Defensively, there's a tendency to lunge into tackles that could provide the Sounders with plenty of set piece opportunities. They're also a team that prefers to defend by being stronger and faster, not necessarily by thinking faster than their opponent. The best way to attack them is to keep the ball moving quickly and by making smart off-the-ball runs.
In DC's matches against Marathon, it appeared that the Honduran club was very much at home trying to provoke a reaction by going into tackles a bit late and by taking dives. That's part of the reality in CCL play; anyone who watched Real Salt Lake vs Arabe Unido last night will have seen how rapidly things can spin out of control (fortunately for RSL, it was Arabe that lost their heads first). Seattle will have to place a strong emphasis on not retaliating. They'll also have to prepare for the possibility that the referee (Guatemalan Juan Carlos Guerra) might make bizarre decisions. That's not a knock on Guatemalan refs, but rather the simple reality of officiating throughout CONCACAF. If you think MLS refs make odd or inexplicable decisions, you haven't seen anything yet. Hopefully, Guerra is up to the task and can keep things from descending into a farce, but in the CCL there's always a chance of that happening.