The new MLS season is only weeks away. However, five teams will have to take their preseason form and prepare for another competition. The CONCACAF Champions League. Can the MLS finally win this tournament? Or will Liga MX add yet another CCL Trophy?
Ah yes. The Champions League. A name synonymous with soccer’s global stars. However, this is not the UEFA Champions League. This is North America’s and the Caribbean’s iteration of the famous tournament. The best 16 teams from MLS, Liga MX, and all Central American top-flight clubs compete to see who is the best in the CONCACAF region.
Unfortunately, this tournament has been pretty cruel to MLS teams in recent years. For example, in the last four years, two squads made the finals. Montreal Impact in 2015, and Toronto FC in 2018. Both teams lost their second legs in heartbreaking fashion. There were two teams who won this competition, but it came in a different format and era of the competition. Those teams were D.C. United in 1998 and L.A. Galaxy in 2000.
The last U.S. based team to make the final in this version of the tournament was Real Salt Lake in the 2010-2011 competition. They also lost. So it is safe to say MLS teams don’t enjoy a successful campaign in the CCL. But why is that?
There are several factors that contribute to this problem. For starters, MLS is in preseason at the moment. That means integrating new signings and draftees, finding spots to replace departed players, and some teams even have new coaches teaching new systems.
Secondly, the competition happens at the beginning of the new MLS season and carries over throughout the season. For MLS teams that means preparing for yet another competition. That comes on top of the regular season and the U.S. Open Cup. Injuries and fatigue begin to set in which further diminishes MLS teams chances of winning.
It is different for Liga MX. In the Mexican top tier, teams entering the CCL are already seven games into their campaign. Stars, new signings, and new coaches are all ahead of their MLS counterparts. In other words, Liga MX has an advantage going into CONCACAF play.
Historically this tournament has been owned by Liga MX. Club America leads the way for the most CONCACAF titles with seven. The defending champion this time around is Club Deportivo Guadalajara, who are not in this year’s tournament.
This iteration of the CCL is quite interesting. The 16 teams are chosen and seeded based off CONCACAF’s club index across eight leagues. The group stage is eliminated for the second straight year, opting for a two-legged knockout style from the beginning. Away goals are also a factor up until the final. The biggest difference for this year is how the tournament can be consumed.
Joining Univision Deportes in the broadcasting of the event, Yahoo Sports has secured the English streaming rights for viewers to enjoy. Now on to the fun part. Deciding who the favorites should be.
Considering how dominated this competition is by Liga MX, MLS teams have an uphill battle on their hands. However, there are two teams who have the potential to make some noise. Atlanta United and Houston Dynamo. Let’s begin with the current MLS champions.
Atlanta United was spectacular all last season. With a number of guys that can make a difference in any game, they deserved their title. Unfortunately, there is one glaring hole on the roster this year. The absence of Miguel Almiron. The Paraguayan star recently experienced a 20 million euro move to Premier League side Newcastle United. Josef Martinez is still there, but Almiron was the man that made the entire offense move.
Regardless, with the likes of Michael Parkhurst and new arrival Florentin Pogba on defense, AUFC has a chance. And let’s not forget, Martinez is not alone up front. He has his running mates in Hector Villalba and Darlington Nagbe is not too shabby at creating chances from midfield.
The second team on this list are the Houston Dynamo. This team can be quite good on defense when healthy. They possess a well seasoned and veteran midfield, and an attack that is only bested by Atlanta United’s attacking options.
However, make no mistake about it, Mauro Manotas is a lethal scorer in his own right. But they have another secret that not many teams have. Knowledge and veteran experience with the CONCACAF region.
Regardless of talent, the Dynamo have quite the cast. Four men from Honduras, Alberth Elis, Boniek Garcia, Romell Quioto, and new signing Maynor Figueroa. And of course, former USMNT man DeMarcus Beasley. Those five alone have enough experience in this region that will keep the Dynamo from panicking in tough situations.
Overall, MLS teams will have it tough. But these are the two teams with the best chance to really do something.
Liga MX’s tournament to lose
The advantage Mexican sides have is no joke. In fact, they often lead to success. The last 13 editions of this competition have all been won by Liga MX sides. Rest and timing are not the only factors in this trend. It’s quite simple actually. Liga MX boasts better depth and talent resources than MLS.
Not shocking at all. Mexico lives and breaths futbol. While the United States top flight competes for spotlight time against four other sports. That’s not to say that MLS has improved. Because it certainly has. Better training, more star attraction, and better youth players are emerging. But not at the rate they are developing in Mexico.
To make it short and simple, Mexico is great at developing young talent. Just look at Hirving “Chucky” Lozano and his success abroad. Besides that, the clubs and love of soccer down there is an added advantage. Which adds to their great depth. And the two leading clubs this season have depth.
Those clubs leading the way this season are Monterrey and Tigres UNAL. Los Tigres, in particular, boast the best depth at the attacking positions. The likes of Eduardo Vargas are being scouted by Portland Timbers. If he does leave, Los Tigres have some good replacements. Andre-Pierre Gignac, Enner Valencia, Javier Aquino, and Jurgen Damm. That alone makes them a formidable foe.
In 2016 and 2017 they lost the final, and in 2018 they lost to Toronto FC in the quarterfinals. This team is poised to make a run. Their path to get there is favorable as well. The first match against Costa Rica’s Saprissa will kick off this redemption run.
With that said, Tigres UNAL should be the favorite to take the CONCACAF Champions League title. The number of attackers they have alone makes them superior. It is a team on a mission to redeem themselves.
The CONCACAF Champions League kicks off February 19th. Guastatoya takes on the Dynamo in Guatemala City.
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