MLS's futility in the Concacaf Champions League is well-documented, and the 2019 crop of hopefuls kicks off the quest to crown a champion, with some of the same potential pitfalls that have crippled past contenders still very much in play.
It's time for MLS's annual game of "Will things really change, or will they remain the same?"
The 2019 Concacaf Champions League begins Tuesday night, with five MLS teams taking a crack at doing what no other has done before and winning the CCL title. MLS teams (1998 D.C. United and 2000 LA Galaxy) have claimed Concacaf's crown before, but only in the archaic iteration of the region's competition. Real Salt Lake (2010-2011) remains the only U.S.-based MLS team to reach the final in the Champions League era, with the Canadian entrants Montreal Impact and Toronto FC coming tantalizingly close to winning it all in 2015 and 2018, respectively, only to suffer heartbreak in the second legs of their finals.
Atlanta United, Toronto FC, Sporting Kansas City, the New York Red Bulls and Houston Dynamo make up this year's batch of hopefuls, all beginning CCL play before MLS begins its regular season. And that takes us to the aspects of the competition that remain the same. The timing of the tournament keeps MLS teams at a disadvantage. Rosters have changed, stars have departed, new managers and key signings are being worked into the mix and cohesion is in the process of being formed. Imagine if the UEFA Champions League's round of 16 began in early August, with Europe's top teams in preseason shape. That's what MLS's entrants have to deal with, while Liga MX's are seven matches into their Clausura campaigns.
For a second straight season, the competition is solely a knockout bracket, with the group stage being eliminated to consolidate the tournament ahead of the 2018 edition. Sixteen qualified teams across eight leagues have entered, seeded based on Concacaf's club index. It'll be two-legged knockout play from start to finish, with away goals a factor up until the final.
One big difference will be in how the competition can be consumed. Yahoo Sports has secured English streaming rights, joining Univision Deportes's Spanish-language platform. That will have little impact on what transpires on the field, though, with Mexican sides again favored to succeed and similar pitfalls presenting themselves for MLS's group of Charlie Browns, who are all hoping to finally deliver an emphatic boot to the futbol that perennially gets yanked away.
Here are the key aspects to watch entering a new CCL campaign:
It's Liga MX's title to lose–again
Mexican sides have won the last 13 Concacaf championships, and Liga MX's top two sides–Monterrey and Tigres UANL–are the favorites to win it again. They're the top two teams in Liga MX and boast the roster depth and clout that typically result in deep runs in this competition.
Tigres, in particular, is loaded in the attack, with the Portland Timbers reportedly looking to pick off one of their strikers with links to Eduardo Vargas supplanting those to Julian Quinones. Even if one were to bolt to the Pacific Northwest, the likes of Andre-Pierre Gignac, Enner Valencia, Javier Aquino and Jurgen Damm would remain. Tuca Ferretti's side is hungry, too. For all of its recent domestic success, it hasn't tasted the same glory on the regional stage, falling in the CCL finals in 2016 and 2017 and in heartbreaking fashion in the the quarterfinals to Toronto in 2018. It's a team on a mission and one with a favorable path.
All eyes on Atlanta United
Atlanta United raised the bar as MLS Cup champions in 2018, tying league-champ Toronto FC's points total and exceeding its wins mark from the season before and claiming the league's title in dominant fashion. It showed what's possible for an MLS team–on the field, in the transfer market and at the box office–and the natural next step would be becoming the first MLS side to win the CCL.
The timing of the competition severely hampers those ambitions, though. For incoming manager Frank de Boer, the Champions League concept isn't a new one, but Concacaf most certainly is. Gone is Miguel Almiron, the influential playmaker responsible for so much of the club's success. Arriving is Pity Martinez, a star who has conquered the cauldron of the Copa Libertadores but one still getting acclimated to his new club and teammates. Needless to say, being thrown directly into meaningful knockout competition isn't the most ideal way to ease into a new setting for two key components to the team.
Atlanta also won't have the raucous environment of Mercedes-Benz Stadium for its home leg of the round of 16, instead playing at Kennesaw State University's Fifth Third Bank Stadium. Scheduling conflicts prevented the club from picking up where it left off at the site of its MLS Cup triumph, but advancing to the quarterfinals would see the club return to its permanent home. Atlanta has U.S. Open Cup experience at Kennesaw State, so it's not entirely foreign, but given the change in environment, unusual opponent (Costa Rica's Herediano) and new coach and superstar, it'll be hard to shake the preseason feel.
Should Atlanta get by Herediano, Monterrey would potentially be looming in the quarterfinals–an early, difficult test coinciding with the first two weeks of the MLS season. The early hurdles are lined up for the Five Stripes.
Another run for Toronto FC?
TFC's 2018 was as disappointing as it gets. Riddled by injury and decimated after focusing the start of the MLS season on its Concacaf ambitions, Toronto could never find or sustain its top form. It has since lost Sebastian Giovinco to Saudi Arabia and watched general manager Tim Bezbatchenko depart for Columbus. Ali Curtis has stepped in for the latter and is in the process of replacing the former, but the Reds are nowhere near the shape they were in when the took on the CCL challenge of a year ago.
TFC's run last season was pretty remarkable, no matter if it came up short. The draw was historically difficult, with Toronto needing to overcome Tigres and Club America in the quarterfinals and semis, respectively, just to get to the final against Chivas. The Reds took an oddity–ousting Mexican competition–and made it less of a rare accomplishment before ultimately falling short. In that regard, their 2019 draw is a cakewalk by comparison. If they can eliminate Panama's Independiente, either Sporting Kansas City or Toluca–currently 15th in Liga MX and in the midst of a five-match winless skid–would be waiting in the quarters. Atlanta or Monterrey could feasibly be the semifinal hurdle. That's not nearly as tall a task, but with Jozy Altidore still on the mend and new defensive anchor Laurent Ciman being worked into the mix, TFC isn't in the same sharp shape it was a year ago, either.
MLS's 'other' trio
The Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas City and Houston Dynamo all appear to have winnable round-of-16 matchups, with SKC's pairing with Toluca–and the road game that comes at significant altitude–the most difficult on paper. But can any of them really make the noise necessary to be a threat? The Red Bulls lost Tyler Adams and have a big midfield hole to plug, all while hoping that Aaron Long and Tim Parker maintain their standard in central defense and that Bradley Wright-Phillips, who turns 34 in a matter of weeks, retains his scoring form without the luxury of being eased into the season.
Sporting KC shuffled its deck a bit with some new key acquisitions but also offloaded central defensive rock Ike Opara. Will that question area prove to be a downfall? Houston, meanwhile, was a perplexing side a season ago. It showed its ability to succeed in winning the U.S. Open Cup (boosted by a healthy Juan David Cabezas) and in Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas still possesses a pair of dynamic attacking pieces. Yet Houston also missed the playoffs, was atrocious away from home and at one point went 10 straight without a win. Wilmer Cabrera's side has proven to be as frustrating as it is inconsistent, which generally is not the way to win a Champions League competition.
Match Schedule (all times Eastern)
Guastatoya vs. Houston Dynamo
First leg: Feb. 19, 10 p.m., in Guatemala City
Second Leg: Feb. 26, 8 p.m. in Houston
Saprissa vs. Tigres UANL
First leg: Feb. 19, 8 p.m., in San Jose, Costa Rica
Second Leg: Feb. 26, 10 p.m. in Monterrey, Mexico
Independiente vs. Toronto FC
First Leg: Feb. 19, 8 p.m., in La Chorrera, Panama
Second Leg: Feb. 26, 8 p.m., in Toronto
Marathon vs. Santos Laguna
First Leg: Feb. 20, 8 p.m., in San Pedro Sula, Honduras
Second Leg: Feb. 27, 8 p.m. in Torreon, Mexico
Atletico Pantoja vs. New York Red Bulls
First Leg: Feb. 20, 8 p.m., in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Second Leg: Feb. 27, 8 p.m. in Harrison, N.J.
Alianza vs. Monterrey
First Leg: Feb. 20, 10 p.m., in San Salvador, El Salvador
Second Leg: Feb. 27, 10 p.m. in Monterrey, Mexico
Herediano vs. Atlanta United
First Leg: Feb. 21, 10 p.m., in Heredia, Costa Rica
Second Leg: Feb. 28, 8 p.m., in Kennesaw, Georgia
Sporting Kansas City vs. Toluca
First Leg: Feb. 21, 8 p.m., in Kansas City, Kansas
Second Leg: Feb. 28, 10 p.m., in Toluca, Mexico