By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 8, 2023) US Soccer Players – In 2022, the Seattle Sounders became the first Major League Soccer team to win the Concacaf Champions League. The achievement ended 13 years of Liga MX dominance in the competition, turning the Champions League from a Sisyphean exercise for American and Canadian clubs into a real chance at continental glory.
If Seattle could do it, maybe other MLS teams had a real shot at taking the region’s top prize. Even with the changing makeup of the Club World Cup, the competition represents the pinnacle for soccer clubs in this part of the world.
What has yet to happen for Major League Soccer is for their defending MLS Cup champion to also win the Champions League. In the last edition, the defending MLS Cup champions NYCFC made a good run at glory, eventually falling in the semifinal to the Sounders, who entered as the best US team that hadn’t already qualified. Reaching the semifinals meant that NYCFC went further than any MLS Cup champion since Toronto FC in 2018.
That Toronto team famously fell in the two-legged final against Chivas by the narrowest of margins. After losing 2-1 in the home leg at BMO Field, Toronto reversed the scoreline over 90 minutes with goals by Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco in Mexico. The club’s bid for continental glory only fell short on penalties, losing the tiebreaker 4-2.
A year later, an unkind draw upended 2018 MLS Cup champion Atlanta United’s chances. Atlanta beat Costa Rica’s Herediano in the round of 16, but came up against Monterrey in the quarterfinals. Monterrey won 3-0 at home in the opening leg, advancing 3-1 on aggregate.
Then there was an earlier version of Seattle, highly touted in the Champions League after their 2019 MLS Cup title. The draw for the 2020 Champions League separated Seattle from Liga MX until the semifinals, but it would be Olimpia of Honduras beating the Sounders on penalties in the round of 16. LAFC, the 2019 record-setting Supporters’ Shield winner, made the final of that tournament, one that paused at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and resumed in Orlando in November.
The tournament wasn’t exactly normal in 2021, but it did get back to games in home stadiums starting from the round of 16. 2020 MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew advanced past Honduran club Motagua in that round, winning 4-0 in the away leg and 1-0 at home. Like many an MLS club before them, the Crew ran into a Liga MX powerhouse in the quarterfinals. Monterrey ended the defending MLS champs’ quest for the Champions League title 5-2 on aggregate.
In this edition of the tournament, LAFC can’t be the first MLS team to win the Champions League, but it can be the first defending MLS Cup champion, and for that matter, Supporters Shield holder, to do so.
To accomplish that feat, head coach Steve Cherundolo’s team will need to balance league play with its CCL challenge in a way that no recent MLS Cup champion has managed. Looming large is the example of Toronto in 2018, a finalist in the Champions League who would miss the playoffs in MLS, and Seattle last season. Add to that the Leagues Cup and Campeones Cup, and it’s going to be a busy season for LAFC.
“It’s an opportunity and it’s an honor to play in the Champions League,” Cherundolo said following LAFC’s 3-2 home win over Portland on Saturday. “It’s one that we earned and one we would love to repeat year after year and those are our goals. In order to do that, you need to maintain the level of play in both competitions. We will try to rotate at the right moments to give players breaks. However, because of the way the rules and regulations are in our league, the one sort of question mark or moment where we kind of roll the dice is, we have to stay healthy.”
LAFC opens the Champions League against Alajuelense of Costa Rica, with the first-leg in Central America on Thursday. If the MLS champs can get past the first hurdle, the tournament sets up perfectly for a march to the final. The only Liga MX club on LAFC’s side of the bracket is Atlas, 14th in the domestic table coming off of two consecutive draws.
Even after last year’s success, the task in the Champions League is still incredibly difficult for MLS teams. As the 2022 Seattle Sounders can attest, making history is never easy.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
More From Jason Davis:
- Damir Kreilach at RSL and James Sands at NYCFC
- How Austin FC, Houston, and Sporting Kansas City’s losses in week one suggest more from those clubs
- Three clubs looking to take another step in MLS
- The expectations for Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez, Atlanta’s Thiago Almada, and Dallas’s Jesus Ferreira in 2023
Photo by LAFC