CONCACAF has tweaked its Champions League format, but for the MLS teams looking to make history, the hurdles that remain pose familiar challenges.
Absent an official CONCACAF Champions League slogan (that we know of), may we suggest the overlooked, under-appreciated competition adopt this famous aphorism ahead of Tuesday evening’s 2018 kickoff:
“Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.”
Spanish and English are the predominant CONCACAF languages, but we’ll stick with the original French—in part because the 19th-century author, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, was from Paris, and in part because the Montreal Impact were the last team to make a real run at subverting the regional status quo. In the spring of 2015, coach Frank Klopas’s unheralded squad upset Pachuca and LD Alajuelense on away goals, then led visiting Club América with 40 minutes to go in the finals. But they couldn’t hold on.
That’s because the more things change on the CONCACAF club landscape, as Karr surely noticed, the more they stay the same. The CCL format and schedule, not to mention the financial investment and technical preparation by MLS participants, have evolved. And the former is doing so again this spring. But the end result—Mexican domination—seems set in stone. Liga MX clubs have claimed 12 straight continental titles, including every edition of the expanded CCL that began in 2008. Since that time, MLS has produced just two finalists, and its teams have won only six home-and-home, knockout-stage series against foreign opposition.
MLS wants to be considered an elite league. But “elite” isn’t easily defined. Winning CCL—and doing so consistently—won’t necessarily cement that status. As stated, the tournament frequently is overlooked (it’s not even on English-language TV in the U.S. this year), and its lack of mainstream traction could be among the reasons MLS remains reluctant to go 100 percent, all-in on winning it. The league isn’t relaxing all its roster rules just yet, and it continues to consent to the very-early-season schedule.
But a CONCACAF title or two certainly would quiet one consistent criticism. And so the pursuit of that elusive goal continues, even as the format and caveats change once again. The CCL took a half-season break last fall and relaunches Tuesday with five MLS entrants that qualified more than a year ago. And the group stage—launched in 2008 and revamped in 2012—is history, replaced by an autumn qualification tournament involving Central American and Caribbean sides and a home-and-home, round-of-16 that begins this week.
We’ll know in a few weeks if the ending remains the same. Meanwhile, here are three things to think about as MLS’s annual exercise in futility gets underway:
New format, similar challenges
The old group stage, whether it was four or three teams per group, hardly was a cakewalk for MLS sides. Of 39 entrants, only 22 escaped. Trips to Latin America take a toll, and scheduling those group games as the MLS season neared its stretch run made life difficult on managers, none of whom ever lost their job due to CCL elimination. Despite the competitive uncertainty, however, crowds and coverage often were lacking. MLS games took priority, and opponents outside Mexico—not to mention the likelihood of knockout-stage failure—didn’t exactly inspire.
So after a decade of trying, CONCACAF has abandoned the “league” portion of the Champions League and reverted to a bracketed, knockout format. The good news for the five MLS participants is that they’ve been separated from Mexican foes in the round-of-16. The bad news is that the winter kickoff remains. Given the option between scheduling the CCL during the meat of the MLS campaign or the start of its season in February/March, the league preferred the latter, meaning its teams once again will have to shake off their winter rust against opponents who’ve been playing competitive soccer for weeks. MLS clubs began preseason training on January 21. The Liga MX and Costa Rican regular seasons opened January 6. By April, those advantages will have ebbed somewhat. But for MLS teams in the CCL, getting to April is no given.
Toronto FC and the Colorado Rapids face each other Tuesday night, but there’s a disparity there as well. TFC won the MLS title in early December and Colorado has been off for almost four months. Meanwhile, FC Dallas, Seattle and New York each play teams that are around eight games into their seasons (on average). MLS clubs may be more talented than Central American counterparts on paper, but if their CCL runs end early, scheduling will be a big reason why.
Toronto gets no favors in the draw
TFC had been celebrating its treble for only a few minutes—champagne still was flowing in the BMO Field locker room—when the CCL topic was raised.
“In the history of this league, in our 22 years of existence, [winning CCL] is what we’re arguing about on a day-to-day basis,” Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko told SI.com. “There are some teams that have come close, [but] I think that if they would’ve won it, it would’ve been an upset. I think we’re going into the Champions League as a favorite. We can do it. We can do it. I think with this group of people, why not?”
To build on the most successful single season in MLS history, TFC needs make a run at the CCL crown. Bezbatchenko and coach Greg Vanney have continued to pursue additions to their record-setting squad, signing Dutch fullback Gregory van der Wiel and Brazilian defender Auro while being linked with Athletic Bilbao midfielder Ager Aketxe, among others.
TFC represents MLS’s latest, best chance to end its CCL misery. But the tournament draw wasn’t kind. Anything can happen in the altitude and chill of Commerce City and if successful, Toronto almost certainly would face Liga MX powerhouse Tigres in the quarterfinals. That would be a massive, early test that could derail the Reds’ effort before it establishes much momentum.
Delay hurts MLS teams in transition
Canceling the group stage and pushing the start of this edition of the CCL from August to February means the MLS teams that qualified in 2016 don’t start play until 2018. In MLS, that can be an eternity.
FC Dallas is coming off a campaign in which it failed to make the MLS Cup playoffs, rather than one in which it lifted the U.S. Open Cup and Supporters' Shield. And the Rapids and Red Bulls are far from the clubs that performed so well during the ’16 regular season. Both have changed significantly, as RBNY has seen veterans like Sacha Kljestan, Damien Perrinelle, Gonzalo Veron, Mike Grella and Dax McCarty (he was on the ’16 team that finished atop the Eastern Conference, remember) head elsewhere.
Colorado has gone through even more changes, hiring coach Anthony Hudson and overhauling a large chunk of its roster. U.S. national team defender Edgar Castillo is on board and will be comfortable playing in Latin America. European additions like Johan Blomberg, Jack Price, Danny Wilson and Joe Mason may be in for a ruder awakening.
Continental competition is supposed to feature the best a given domestic league has to offer. But thanks to the revamped format and delay, several of these MLS teams are a year or more removed from the best version of themselves. FC Dallas, the Red Bulls and Rapids are unproven, at best, and are entering this tournament at an awkward time. That doesn’t bode well for the league’s CCL prospects.
Round of 16 First Legs
Herediano vs Tigres UANL
Colorado Rapids vs Toronto FC
Deportivo Saprissa vs. Club América
Tauro FC vs. FC Dallas
Motagua vs. Club Tijuana
Cibao FC vs. Chivas Guadalajara
Olimpia vs. New York Red Bulls
Santa Tecla vs. Seattle Sounders
Round of 16 Second Legs
Toronto FC vs. Colorado Rapids
Tigres UANL vs. Herediano
Club Tijuana vs. Motagua
FC Dallas vs. Tauro FC
Chivas Guadalajara vs. Cibao FC
Club América vs. Deportivo Saprissa
New York Red Bulls vs. Olimpia
Seattle Sounders vs. Santa Tecla
March 6-8 and March 13-15
América/Saprissa vs. Dallas/Tauro
Toronto/Colorado vs. Tigres/Herediano
New York/Olimpia vs. Tijuana/Motagua
Seattle/Santa Tecla vs. Chivas/Cibao
April 3-5 and April 10-12
April 17-19 and April 24-26