By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Mar 5, 2018) US Soccer Players – The 2018 MLS season may have opened this past weekend but for the three teams still involved in the CONCACAF Champions League, the time is now to start playing at a higher level. The CCL quarterfinals, which start this week, will be a real test for Toronto FC, the New York Red Bulls, and the Seattle Sounders.
Even with the new format, MLS teams face many challenges. March is a time loaded with fixtures, rosters often not deep enough to compete on various fronts, and attempting to shake off that preseason rust after a long period of inactivity. That has hurt MLS clubs in the past. It could very well become an albatross this year. Nonetheless, coaches and players remain both enthusiastic and confident that their sides can reach this year’s final and break the Liga MX hegemony that has taken hold on this competition since CONCACAF rebranded it a decade ago.
The statistic that looms large is this one: in the nine Champions League finals held since 2009, seven have featured an all-Mexico finale. Only two featured MLS teams, Real Salt Lake in 2011 and the Montreal Impact in 2015. Both RSL and the Impact failed to win the trophy. All three teams currently in the tournament face Mexican opponents in the quarterfinals: Toronto vs Tigres UANL, Red Bulls vs Club Tijuana, and the Sounders vs Chivas, perhaps the toughest of any encounter in this round.
“I know that anytime you play a Mexican team that you are going to deal with a team that is good on the ball, a team that is going to test you, a team that is fit, a team that can run,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “I am glad we got two competitive games under our belt so we got fitness up, we got sharpness up, we felt the pressure of a big game and now we will be put to the test and I know we are all excited about the challenge.”
The trio of MLS teams each face different challenges both in terms of opponents as well as internally along with a host of varied expectations heading into the final eight. Add to that the fact that the Liga MX season started in January and the deck seems once again stacked against MLS.
Toronto FC, after dominating last season and winning MLS Cup, will need to keep winning in order to build a dynasty. It needs to silence naysayers who claim the Reds are a one-off winner and not a side that can compete consistently each week in different tournaments against stronger and wealthier clubs in the region. Toronto will get its chance Tigres. Toronto has spent money wisely and brought in some important pieces the last two years. They went from a lousy club to a very good one in a short amount of time. Toronto remains the strongest MLS side still alive in the Champions League in terms of roster, depth, and ability.
Being the favorite to repeat as MLS champs is one thing. In the Champions League. Toronto was lucky to play a familiar opponent in the Colorado Rapids in the round of 16. Tigres won’t be so forgiving. The Mexican side has a larger payroll than TFC’s, which is the largest in MLS. Tigres features star players such as French striker Andrew-Pierre Gignac and Chile striker Eduardo Vargas. The toughness of the opposition and loaded fixture list is something TFC is aware of, but the players said it won’t let it bother them.
“We've gone through the stretches of the season where we are going Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday,” goalkeeper Alex Bono told Toronto FC’s official website. “We know we have a ton of talented depth; that we have a great starting 11, whoever we decide to put on the field for any game going forward. For us, it's all about focusing on playing our game, our style, making teams adjust to the way we play. If we can do that, we can make teams worry about the dangers and talents we have. It gives us a leg up on our competition.”
The Red Bulls, on the other hand, have a rich history with very little to show for it in the trophy case. For New York, a team built on youth and energy, it’s the ultimate test of whether Marsch’s vision can work over the long term. The Red Bulls do have an uncanny ability to lift themselves up each season and try again for a trophy. Losing in last year’s US Open Cup, yet another early elimination from the MLS Cup Playoffs, and selling off players such as Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan hasn’t deterred the players and the enthusiasm in the dressing room.
Seattle remains a strong club and competitive against MLS as well as foreign opposition. It hasn’t always gone well for the Sounders in the Champions League, but this is the chance to start anew. Their series against Chivas will reveal a lot about this team’s character and potential for 2018. The Will Bruin-led Sounders will need to put together another dominating performance, particularly in the first leg Wednesday at home, to set the tone for the two-match series.
Part of defeating international opponents is using home-field advantage. Mexican clubs, with altitude, rowdy fans, and a host of other factors, know how to do this. Seattle will need to do the same. CenturyLink Field provides the perfect setting for it. The team has an astounding 22-2-7 record in all competitions since coach Brian Schmetzer took over midway through 2016. The first loss came against Toronto via penalties in the MLS Cup Final. Unfortunately for building that momentum, the second came in their MLS opener against expansion club LAFC on Sunday.
Chivas are languishing near the foot of the Liga MX table, a poor run of form that could work in Seattle’s favor. There are a lot of factors at play in the Champions League. MLS usually comes out on the losing end of these big matches. This could very well be the year all that changes. It’s working out for Toronto, New York and Seattle so far. For these MLS teams, it’s all about taking it one game, and one tournament, at a time.
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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(Photo by Al Sermano - ISIPhotos.com)