By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 31, 2021) US Soccer Players – Major League Soccer teams got a bit more time to prepare for the 2021 season due to the delay caused by collective bargaining negotiations in January. That extra month might look like a positive after 2020 pushed rosters to the brink. Then again, there’s already been more than enough time to recover and plan.
New England Revolution head coach Bruce Arena spoke about what’s an old MLS problem with a new twist. There’s too much of an offseason. He believes the league will suffer because of the delay to the start of the season.
“There are teams in our league that stopped playing at the end of October and didn’t make the playoffs and now they won’t have an official game until April,” he said. “For professional players, that’s too big a gap. Out athletes have got to be very fit and when they’re away from the game for long periods of time, it takes that much more time to get them right.”
Using Arena’s time frame, getting players “right” could theoretically extend into the early summer. While he was specifically talking about the right clubs that missed the playoffs, the ones that got in may not have lasted much longer. Unfit and unsharp players will change the complexion of the early going in MLS. It will also hurt clubs aiming for Concacaf Champions League success in 2021.
Last year’s run to the Champions League final by LAFC showed that an MLS team could contend for the regional title. It would be silly not to mention that Bob Bradley’s team benefited from the rescheduled Champions League format. The pandemic forced Concacaf to cancel the traditional two-legged tie knockout portion of the tournament. Instead, they crowned a winner after a truncated version played entirely in Orlando.
If one of the participating MLS teams is going to do LAFC one better this time around, they’ll have to do it the usual way. Even as MLS clubs are firing up the engines and working to get back to something approaching full fitness and sharp play, the Champions League arrives just ahead of the start of the MLS campaign.
2020’s MLS Cup winners Columbus lucked into a favorable draw for the first round. Caleb Porter’s side will face Real Esteli of Nicaragua, with the first leg set for April 8 in Managua.
Real Esteli is a power of Nicaraguan soccer and currently sits second in the league table. It’s been a few years since the club made the Champions League. The last time was when the tournament still had a group stage, with Real Esteli not getting out of it. Though the MLS champs are favorites, even Crew head coach Caleb Porter holds no illusions about where his team will be in the process of building into the season.
“We’re not where we want to be yet, but we just need time,” Porter said on Monday. “That first game, I hope we’ll have a good performance. Not as good as we want but hopefully good enough to win.”
Columbus will know its fate for the quarterfinals of the Champions League by the time it opens its MLS season on April 18 against Philadelphia. Progressing into the last eight of the tournament likely means a matchup against Mexican power Monterrey, a four-time winner of the competition.
At full strength, Columbus has the weapons to compete. They added Kevin Molino and Bradley Wright-Phillips to a group that includes playmaker Lucas Zelearayan, winger Pedro Santos, and striker Gyasi Zardes. Goals will come for the Crew, with Zardes benefitting from all that service.
Atlanta and Portland start their Champions League campaigns this Tuesday. For Atlanta, the berth in the tournament was given rather than earned. Without a US Open Cup last season, Atlanta took that spot as defending domestic cup champions. There’s an argument that the Champions League carries greater importance for Atlanta as a proof of concept. Their latest revamp needs to show results. The Five Strips face Alajuelense of Costa Rica, a team in excellent form currently atop the standings in Liga FPD.
Portland’s challenge is easier, at least on paper. The Timbers face off against Marathon of Honduras, with the first leg in San Pedro Sula. Marathon sits last in group A on six points through nine matches in the Honduran league’s group format.
Then there’s Toronto FC. Adjusting to a new head coach and unable to play at home due to pandemic travel protocols, they also got the toughest draw of any MLS team. Toronto opens against Liga MX champions Club Leon. Though they’re currently 9thth in the Clausura standings, they’re still the favorite. Toronto’s trip to Leon for the first leg on Wednesday will go a long way towards determining its Champions League fate.
MLS will also have a Champions League debutant in the field in 2021 in the Philadelphia Union. Early reports on the Union’s preseason are good, perhaps setting the stage for a successful first matchup in the CCL when the Supporters’ Shield holders take on Saprissa of Costa Rica. That doesn’t make them favorites.
Saprissa is in midseason form in the Costa Rican league, while the Union faces the same problem as the rest of the MLS entrants. Good preseason results, or not, Philadelphia must overcome the poor timing of the tournament, a four-month-plus layoff, and the turnover of a roster that no longer has Brenden Aaronson or Mark McKenzie.
MLS in the Concacaf Champions League is always complicated. 2021 might be the most complicated yet.
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Photo by Brad Smith – ISIPhotos.com