By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Feb 17, 2020) US Soccer Players – It’s a question MLS teams participating in the Concacaf Champions League ask themselves every winter. How will we be able to win a trophy while Mexican clubs continue to dominate? It’s a puzzle MLS teams, currently in preseason, have to ponder seriously.
In a way, participation in the Concacaf Champions League has become a fastidious reminder of the limitations of MLS, the resources and abilities compared to their money-rich and talent-laden competition in Liga MX. The numbers speak for themselves. Against Mexican clubs, MLS teams have compiled a dismal 6-15 record since 2008. MLS teams have winning records against teams from Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic. In the modern era, that’s not what wins the Champions League.
What can and will MLS teams do differently this season as they embark on another knockout round of games that have mostly gone against them over the last decade? The Montreal Impact, Seattle Sounders, NYCFC, LAFC, and Atlanta United represent a cross-section of skill, talent, and success in MLS. Which one of these teams, if any, have a shot at winning it all?
Each of these teams bring with them different challenges and a spectrum of abilities. Aside from preseason, it will be the first competitive matches they have played since last season. One small edge this season is that the gap of time between the Champions League and the start of the MLS season has shrunk considerably. Nonetheless, Mexican teams still gain a fitness advantage since they started playing Liga MX games last month.
It’s true that MLS teams need to be better prepared, but what does that ultimately mean? MLS, by now, knows full well that they’re the underdogs in this tournament, especially when pitted against Mexican clubs. The reality is that Mexican clubs have been the biggest impediment to any MLS club lifting the trophy. Therefore, it is worth looking at the paths of the five teams involved in the competition, along with what and whom they could face in the coming weeks.
“Now there are many players that want to be in MLS, including Mexicans,” Atlanta United FC coach Frank de Boer, who is entering his second season as manager, told reporters recently. “We are proving that the difference between Liga MX and MLS is closing, now that MLS has much more quality.”
Maybe, but MLS teams have to work their new signings into their setup on short notice. Even for the established elite in MLS, its playing through a scenario that may not favor them. One first test will be LAFC, the only MLS team to face off against a Mexican opponent in the round of 16. When the sides meet on Tuesday, Leon will have already played six league matches. Leon is in 1st-place in the Clausura. They play a talented LAFC squad in preseason form.
All hope, however, isn’t lost for the Supporters’ Shield winners. LAFC has Mexican striker Carlos Vela and former New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, who just recently joined the team. Although untested, this offensive duo could surprise many this season and no better place to start than against Leon. Even a win against Leon would result in a possible meeting against Cruz Azul, another Liga MX hurdle.
Normally at least one MLS team goes all in. This time around, that’s Atlanta. To prepare for the CCL, they held preseason camp in Mexico to acclimate to the weather and conditions. Atlanta faces Motagua of Honduras in the round of 16 on Tuesday, but could potentially meet Mexican powerhouse Club America in the quarterfinals next month. While an MLS team has never won the CCL in its current format dating back to 2008, Atlanta United boasts experience against Liga MX foes. Last year that included a Campeones Cup win against America.
MLS Cup winners Seattle have the best shot at the final courtesy of an advantageous draw. While they face Olimpia of Honduras on Thursday, they wouldn’t meet a Mexican club until potentially the semifinals against Tigres. Other opponents along the way, such as talent-laden Costa Rican club Saprissa, could also prove difficult.
The two weakest MLS teams in the field, Montreal and NYCFC, need to fear more than Mexican clubs. Both are rebuilding after last season. Montreal, most notably, recently saw the departure of striker Ignacio Piatti. NYCFC, meanwhile, continues to grapple with home-field issues. They host San Carlos of Costa Rica in their second-leg on February 26 at Red Bull Arena, home of their bitter cross-city rivals.
In all, it should be an exciting tournament, but one that MLS teams often lose steam as they get closer to the final. This version could very well be different. Allocation money and the arrival of new players should mean a better chance for an MLS team to finally breakthrough. If anything, preseason holds with it the promise of a trophy. The reality on the field could very well be another predictable finish for MLS teams in the Champions League.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Ben Olsen in DC
- The Chicago and Atlanta MLS expansion models
- Martino's Mexico in 2020
- 5 players to watch in the 2020 USMNT Camp
Photo by Bill Barrett - ISIPhotos.com