By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Feb 13, 2017) US Soccer Players – Amid a flurry of player signings, the release of new-look jerseys, and preseason games versus minor-league opponents, MLS clubs have been hard at work preparing for the upcoming season. There are three teams that have had to deal with a bigger sense of urgency looming over their preseason camps. That’s because the New York Red Bulls, Vancouver Whitecaps, and FC Dallas are still alive in the CONCACAF Champions League that resumes next week. It’s Major League Soccer’s latest opportunity to finally break Mexico’s stronghold on the continent’s premier club competition.
These three teams find themselves at a disadvantage. It’s the same one MLS teams face when the knockout portion of the Champions League begins. Mexico’s clubs are in season. MLS teams aren’t. With MLS not starting until early March, New York, Vancouver and Dallas have not played a game that counts since last fall. Shaking off that rust isn't easy. All the preseason games and intra-squad scrimmages of the past few weeks are no substitute for games that count.
Despite this disadvantage, there is hope for a Major League Soccer team to reach this year's final. At the same time, there’s no chance any of these clubs will do what English champion Leicester has done this season – put its resources into the UEFA Champions League rather than the Premier League. For MLS teams, the elusive CCL isn’t worth a sole focus.
The Champions League schedule is too spread out since it spans across two different MLS seasons. While Leicester is in the knockout stage of the Champions League, it is fighting to avoid relegation. While there is no relegation in MLS, missing the playoffs could be the result if a team were to put all its eggs in the CCL basket. That is a scenario teams want to avoid in a league where making the playoffs is what counts.
However, this year’s CCL quarterfinals create a few favorable scenarios. Last year, four MLS teams faced four Mexican clubs in the knockout round. The result was all four Liga MX clubs going through and assuring a Mexican team would win the title. This year, the Red Bulls play the Whitecaps, while FC Dallas faces Panama’s Arabe Unido. The other two quarterfinals feature Saprissa (Costa Rica) vs Pachuca (Mexico) and the all-Liga MX Tigres vs. UNAM Pumas.
The Red Bulls, with Austrian ownership, stayed domestic, They opted for the Arizona desert for the bulk of their preseason training. Both FC Dallas and Vancouver decided to go abroad for preseason.
FC Dallas, taking advantage of its South American connections, traveled to Argentina to face some of the country’s best clubs. The goal is to try and recreate a game day atmosphere against a strong opponent in an effort to be fit in time for the Champions League. The team scheduled eight games in eight days. FC Dallas has been impressive, drawing 3-3 against San Lorenzo and 1-1 against Racing Club.
Vancouver, on the other hand, tapped into its connections across the Atlantic and recently spent 10 days in Great Britain. In three games, the Whitecaps went 2-0-1 with two 4-0 victories versus Oxford United and Bristol City. The only loss came in its first match against Cardiff City, 1-0.
“We just wanted to ramp them up a bit more quickly than our usual trips to Arizona,” Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson said. “I think we managed to do that.”
The MLS regular season is still the place where teams make their money when it comes to ticket sales, stadium concession, and gaining overall marketing visibility. Splitting that focus with a Champions League semifinal in the Spring will be interesting.
It also raises that question – is the pursuit of the Champions League worth it if it means a slow start to the MLS season? In 2015, Montreal did it. They got off to a very poor start, while reaching the CCL final. They lost to Club America. Coach Frank Klopas ost his job in late August after the team won just eight games out of 23, the price of Champions League success.
MLS clubs may not prioritize the Champions League over the MLS season, but teams will certainly give it their all once those quarterfinals roll around in a few weeks. If MLS wants to prove it is the cream of the crop in the region, it will need for its teams to lift the CCL title.
Despite the differences in preseason approaches, Robinson said the NY-Vancouver series will feature two teams that are not even close to being in top form.
“I don't think you will see two teams that 100% fully fit,” he said. “But unfortunately that’s how the dates are in CONCACAF."
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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