Less than two weeks after the conclusion of a Gold Cup tournament that was a historically miserable slog for the U.S. and Canada, MLS clubs will wade back into the CONCACAF swamp as the 2015-16 Champions League kicks off.
The U.S. finished fourth at last month’s Gold Cup—its worst performance since 2000—while Canada failed to score a single goal. Both experienced what MLS squads have dealt with for years: travel and playing surface often are far from ideal, officiating and organization shouldn’t be taken for granted and CONCACAF games aren’t won on paper.
Central American clubs lacking big stars and big payrolls can be tough outs, and Mexico reigns supreme. El Tri won its 10th CONCACAF championship (and seventh Gold Cup) last month. Meanwhile, Liga MX teams have claimed 10 consecutive CCL titles. No domestic league on the planet comes close to matching that run (three English teams combined to win six straight European Cups in the late 70s-early 80s).
But the five MLS entrants in the 2015-16 CCL, which kicks off Tuesday, may be buoyed by the Montreal Impact’s stunning yet deserved run to the 2014-15 finals. Coming off a terrible domestic season, the overhauled Impact were hit hard by injury and suspension. But thanks in part to an unprecedented logistical and financial commitment, Montreal became the first MLS club to win knockout-stage series against two Latin American opponents in a single CCL campaign. And the Impact entered the second half of April's decider against visiting Club América with a lead.
Montreal’s close call leaves few excuses for this season’s MLS hopefuls. But a wide swath of gray area remains.
The tight scheduling, arduous travel and relative lack of pressure—no coach has been fired, no player has been cut and we assume no season ticket has been canceled because of an early CCL exit—can make it tough to prioritize the competition during the stretch run of the MLS regular season.
That’s especially true for teams in a playoff race. The two MLS clubs that survived the CCL group stage last season, Montreal and D.C. United, pretty much knew they were missing and making the playoffs, respectively. The three that suffered CCL elimination were unsure of their postseason fates.
The CCL format instituted in 2012 will remain. The 24 clubs (nine from North America, 12 from Central America and three from the Caribbean) have been drawn into eight groups. American and Mexican clubs are kept apart. Each team will play four games—home and away against the other two clubs in their group—and the first-place finisher will move on to the March quarterfinals.
Here’s a look at the five MLS teams in this season’s CCL, their schedules and where their priorities may lie.
Qualification: First place in 2014 MLS Eastern Conference regular season.
Schedule: Aug. 19 at Árabe Unido (Panama), Aug. 25 vs. Montego Bay United (Jamaica), Sept. 15 vs. Árabe Unido, Sept. 22 at Montego Bay United.
Outlook: CONCACAF champ in 1998, United now is in first place in the East and a comfortable 14 points clear in the MLS playoff race. If any MLS coach could go all-in on the CCL, it’s Ben Olsen. But a favorable draw and the success of his reserves in last year’s group stage means we’re likely to see a few unfamiliar faces in United black when D.C. visits Panama in two weeks.
In 2014, United went 4-0-0 against Jamaican and Panamanian opposition using lineups composed almost entirely of reserves, save for the occasional appearance by the likes of Fabian Espíndola or Perry Kitchen. Drawn against clubs from the same countries, Olsen likely will take the same approach unless D.C. faces elimination. United isn’t a top-heavy MLS team. That philosophy can pay off when juggling competitions.
Árabe Unido is a two-time CCL quarterfinalist (2010 and 2014) and is the reigning Panamanian champ. Three players, defenders Erick Davis and Angel Patrick and forward Abdiel Arroyo, were on the team that won bronze at last month’s Gold Cup. Only Davis started regularly. MBU, the third-place finisher at the recent Caribbean club championship, is making its CCL debut. Forward Allan Ottey was a reserve on Jamaica’s Gold Cup team, which finished second.
Qualification: 2014 MLS Cup champion.
Schedule: Thursday vs. Central FC (Trinidad and Tobago), Aug. 18 vs. Comunicaciones (Guatemala), Sept. 23 at Central FC, Oct. 21 at Comunicaciones.
Outlook: For those still anxious to see MLS prove itself on the continental stage, 2012 probably still stings. That was when an LA squad that was between consecutive MLS titles, loaded with talent and seemingly at the height of its powers, fell to Toronto FC in the CCL quarterfinals.
Now, the 2000 CONCACAF champs have reloaded and certainly should have no trouble negotiating a relatively easy group this season.
It will be interesting to see whether new arrivals Steven Gerrard and Giovani Dos Santos are deployed in CONCACAF play (regarding the former, it’s always fun to hear a European star’s reaction to playing in Latin America), but it shouldn’t impact the end result.
Comunicaciones furnished a significant chunk of Guatemala’s Gold Cup team, which was awful. Central was founded just three years ago and features T&T goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams.
LA’s real CCL test will come next spring, by which time Gerrard and Dos Santos should be comfortable. On paper, no MLS team is better positioned to become the first to play in the Club World Cup.
Real Salt Lake
Qualification: Best 2014 MLS regular season record among clubs not automatically qualified (fourth U.S. berth opened when Seattle claimed U.S. Open Cup and Supporters' Shield titles).
Schedule: Tuesday at CSD Municipal (Guatemala), Sept. 15 at Santa Tecla (El Salvador), Sept. 24 vs. Santa Tecla, Oct. 20 vs. CSD Municipal.
Outlook: That loss to Monterrey in the 2011 CCL finals still stings, but the RSL team now looking to go a step further in CONCACAF play bears little resemblance to the one that came so close four years ago. Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Nick Rimando remain, but the supporting cast has been overhauled and missing the playoffs for the first time in eight years is a very real possibility in Sandy, Utah.
More so than any other MLS coach in this season’s CCL, RSL's Jeff Cassar will have to weigh his club’s domestic fate against the demands of two trips to Central America, the historic significance of the continental competition to his club and the likelihood of (or lack thereof) a deep run.
RSL’s rebuild may have taken a significant step forward with the reported acquisition of Argentine forward Juan Manuel Martínez.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported Tuesday that the club had reached a verbal agreement with the Boca Juniors veteran. No RSL player currently has more than five MLS goals this season.
Guatemalan runner-up Municipal features the ageless Carlos Ruiz, while Santa Tecla will be making its CCL debut. The competition doesn’t seem tough, but RSL hasn’t made anything look easy this year.
Qualification: 2014 U.S. Open Cup and MLS Supporters' Shield winner.
Schedule: Wednesday at Vancouver Whitecaps, Aug. 19 vs. Olimpia (Honduras), Aug. 26 at Olimpia, Sept. 23 vs. Vancouver Whitecaps.
Outlook: The Sounders aren’t in good shape. Losers of seven of their past eight MLS games, the 2014 Supporters' Shield winner now is holding on to the Western Conference’s sixth and final playoff position by only three points. Clint Dempsey is back from Gold Cup duty and Obafemi Martins, who’s been injured during that 1-7-0 stretch, supposedly is nearing a return. Midfielder Marco Pappa is sidelined following last month’s arrest for DUI.
On Tuesday, the Sounders announced the acquisition of veteran Austrian midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz. The 31-year-old playmaker spent the past two seasons with Spain's Levante. Coach Sigi Schmid has a lot to work out, and a team that once looked like the finished product now faces plenty of uncertainty.
Forward Chad Barrett may have captured his team’s mood, not to mention that aforementioned CCL gray area, when he told The Seattle Times, “I think the league looks forward to [the CCL] more than the players do.”
Adding to the intrigue is Seattle’s placement in this season’s CCL “group of death.” The Sounders open the tournament at Cascadia rival Vancouver on Wednesday and also must face Honduran champion Olimpia, which last season won a group that included the Portland Timbers. Most would bet on the Sounders recapturing their rhythm in time for the MLS playoffs. Whether they can do it in time to advance out of a difficult CCL group remains to be seen.
Qualification: Top Canadian club in 2014 MLS regular season.
Schedule: Wednesday vs. Seattle Sounders, Sept. 16 vs. Olimpia (Honduras), Sept. 23 at Seattle Sounders, Oct. 22 at Olimpia.
Outlook: Vancouver has been brutally unlucky in cup competition. The Whitecaps finished as Canadian Championship runner-up five straight times (2009-13) before falling to Toronto in last year’s semis on penalty kicks. TFC, a 2012 semifinalist, and the Impact have made their mark on the CCL. Vancouver remained in the CONCACAF wilderness.
Then, a reprieve. A schedule change to the 2015 Canadian Championship forced a one-year wrinkle in CCL qualifying—the best of the three Canadian clubs during the 2014 MLS regular season would earn the bid. Vancouver claimed the spot relatively easily and now appears poised to go further. In first place in the West at 12-8-3, the Caps are balanced, talented and, it just so happens, coming off last weekend’s 3-0 thumping of the Sounders.
The likes of Pedro Morales and Mauro Rosales (when recovered from a groin injury) won’t be intimidated by the atmosphere in Tegucigalpa. Still, the Whitecaps are new to this, and will have to learn the delicate MLS-CCL balancing act through trial and error. At least the travel won’t be too bad.