By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 15, 2019) US Soccer Players - It’s that time of year again. In a few short days the Concacaf Champions League, North America’s top club competition, returns. 16 of the region’s best teams play for a trophy and a place in the FIFA Club World Cup.
It’s also the latest opportunity for MLS teams to break their long-running drought in this tournament. The league has still never won the Champions League in its modern incarnation, now over a decade old.
Mexico has utterly dominated CCL, winning all 10 editions to date. In fact, only three non-Mexican teams have even reached the championship final during that time. With their expensively-assembled squads, rugged competitive league environment, and a season calendar that puts them in prime form and fitness during CCL, Liga MX clubs have remained a clear step ahead despite MLS’s decade of growth.
Last year Toronto FC came as close to winning the thing as any MLS team ever has, twice defeating Mexican royalty before falling to Chivas Guadalajara on penalties in the final. In the process, the Reds underlined just what a difficult challenge it is for MLS teams. That's not only during the CCL itself, but via the vicious post-tournament hangover that helped drive their league season into a ditch. It was enough to make you wonder if it’s a downright impossible task.
The human instinct is to rise up off the canvas and try, try again. So it is for TFC and four of their MLS mates. Is this finally the year? Let’s take a look at the field of contenders.
The frontrunners: Atlanta United
Atlanta certainly has the talent to win this tournament. They've shown that pretty clearly over their first two years of league play, culminating in last year’s MLS Cup win. Josef Martinez is arguably the greatest striker MLS has ever seen. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Michael Parkhurst are two of the league’s top defenders. Brad Guzan is steady and strong in goal. Miguel Almiron is gone. Pity Martinez, fresh off a Copa Libertadores championship with River Plate, took his place. Their supporting cast is full of quality and know-how as well.
It gets more complicated when considering this winter’s coaching change. With Tata Martino off to the Mexican national team, Frank de Boer faces a tricky task as a newcomer to the club, its league, and North American soccer in general. Can he get up to speed quickly enough to navigate CCL’s treacherous waters?
Another question hanging over Atlanta: Can they truly be prepared for the quirks and vagaries of this event? There’s Copa Libertadores experience in their squad, which helps a great deal. Perhaps there's even more randomness and gamesmanship on offer in Mexico and Central America. Up until last year’s MLS playoffs, United's record in knockout competitions was far more pedestrian than their league exploits. This year’s CCL arrives at a potentially awkward moment for them.
The system guys: New York Red Bulls
After I wrote about Toronto’s post-CCL woes last fall, I heard from several Red Bulls fans. They gleefully noted that their team managed to win the Supporters’ Shield after their run to the CCL semifinals, where they gave eventual champions Chivas all they could handle and then some. The message: Their team deserves more credit for dodging the Champions League hangover.
They’re not wrong. RBNY has been one of MLS’s most consistent competitors over the last several years. They can also mount runs in CCL and US Open Cup at the same time. This is due not only to the quality of their players and coaches, but also the enduring effectiveness of their youth-oriented, high-intensity pressing system. That's honed and implemented across Red Bull’s global network of clubs, scouts, and other infrastructure.
It’s not hard to imagine them making another deep Champions League run this spring. Though midfielder Tyler Adams and former head coach Jesse Marsch have moved on to RB Leipzig, they return plenty of impact starters and staved off Club America’s winter pursuit of their Argentine playmaker Kaku Gamarra. They open their CCL campaign as marked favorites over round-of-16 opponents Atletico Pantoja of the Dominican Republic.
Above all, they have a system that works. With a productive academy and their parent corporation’s smart player acquisition mechanisms, the Red Bulls have proven they can weather departures, injuries and bad breaks on the pitch. The next step: Proving they can nullify the brightest stars of Liga MX.
The grizzled vets: Toronto FC
A month ago Canada’s best looked well positioned to make another run at the Champions League trophy. Despite missing last year’s playoffs, they still possessed an array of elite attacking talent. That included the veteran core that won a treble in 2017 and got so agonizingly close to the Champions League title the following spring. They clearly hungered for redemption.
Then TFC sold off Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez to Qatari club Al-Arabi. Wingback Gregory van der Wiel ended up on the trading block after a clash with the coaching staff. A few weeks later they shipped out superstar Sebastian Giovinco to Saudi Arabia after contract renewal talks reached an impasse. Then came word that Jozy Altidore is still not quite back to full match fitness after October’s ankle surgery.
It’s not as if Toronto is now bereft of talent. Michael Bradley is still the captain and midfield anchor. Marky Delgado, Jonathan Osorio, and Chris Mavinga are proven performers up the team's spine. Belgian center back Laurent Ciman arrived this winter with ample CCL experience from the Montreal Impact's run to the 2015 final.
Yet with so much offseason tumult, TFC faces real concerns about their readiness. An opening matchup vs Panamanian upstarts Club Atletico Independiente may provide some margin for error. That said, this may not be the Red juggernaut of old.
The balanced bet: Sporting KC
The longest-tenured coach in MLS, former USMNT standout Peter Vermes has built something rare out on the Midwestern prairie. It's a consistent contender with few to no superstars, sensible spending and a commitment to youth development.
It’s paid off in the form of three US Open Cup titles and one MLS Cup. Now Vermes and Sporting aim to break through in international competition. It’s their first time back in the CCL in two years, and their first experience of the all-knockout format implemented last year. That format still leaves MLS teams under the gun in terms of the calendar, forced to find match fitness during preseason. It might help Vermes, who seemed to punt on CCL’s group stage back when that phase hit during the MLS stretch run of late summer and early fall.
In a league where one Designated Player can make more than the rest of his teammates combined, Sporting are the epitome of balance. They have the strength in depth that CCL runs tend to require. They are capable of playing both a pass-happy possession game and the bruising high press. Like RBNY, their system’s emphasis on high levels of fitness and cardiovascular loading should work in their favor at this time of year.
Ready to lay a wager on their CCL hopes? There’s a catch: They have by far the toughest round-of-16 assignment of the five MLS teams. Mexican heavyweights Toluca stand in their way. The higher seed hosts the decisive second-leg at their city’s lofty elevation of 8,750 feet above sea level. SKC had better ambush the Diablos Rojos in leg 1 in KC.
The dark horse: Houston Dynamo
After a surprisingly strong playoff run in 2017, last year was mostly a nightmare for Houston. They did, however, win the Open Cup, so here they are in the Champions League.
The league struggles of 2018 have diminished their perceived prospects in the international competition. According to MLS Players Association figures, no one in MLS spends less on their roster. All that being said, a few pundits have suggested that they might just turn out to be a surprise package in the Champions League.
The Dynamo’s squad is heavily Latin American, including five Central Americans. They’re unlikely to be surprised or excessively dismayed by the circumstances of CCL travel and the like. They’re also very comfortable playing on the counterattack, with speedy, tricky Honduran wingers Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto posing constant danger in transition. Influential Colombian box-to-box midfielder Juan David Cabezas seems to be back to full health this year.
Does all that add up to a Montreal-esque underdog run? We’ll start to get an idea on Tuesday. They kick off the tournament at Guatemala's CD Guastatoya, the back end of a CCL opening-night tripleheader.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Wynalda: "Marrying yourself to mediocrity is not what I’m in this to do"
- USMNT coaching debut hints at Berhalter’s other mandate: to teach
- Seasoned rookie: A conversation with USMNT newcomer Daniel Lovitz
- Interesting questions for MLS and US Soccer in the player development space
Logo courtesy of Concacaf