You might have heard by now that an MLS team has never won the Concacaf Champions League. Any MLS fan with an inferiority complex (that is, pretty much every MLS fan) will tell you as much, as will any fan of Liga MX. The lack of a CCL trophy is a shadow hanging over the league.
It probably shouldn’t be as big a deal as it feels like. Toronto FC lost in penalties, essentially a coin flip, to Chivas de Guadalajara in the 2018 final. MLS teams have progressed exponentially in the past few years. We know the disadvantages of starting the tournament in mid-February, when MLS is in training camp and everyone else is fully into the season.
But until MLS puts on a better showing in the CCL and grabs the trophy once and for all, it will have no claim to being superior to Liga MX in the North American soccer hierarchy.
Let’s take a look at the five MLS clubs that qualified for this year’s competition, and their chances of ending Mexico’s reign.
It’s possible that LAFC is MLS’s best entrant, but they have a Death Draw. In the first round they get Club Leon, who finished second in Liga MX’s Apertura and are currently third, six games into the Clausura. Win there, and they likely get Cruz Azul, and the semifinal could bring Atlanta United or Club America.
There are no easy games for the Angels. The good news for them is that they haven’t faced dramatic turnover this offseason, and will return most of their core except for center back Walker Zimmerman, who was surprisingly dealt to Nashville SC this month. They signed Bradley Wright-Phillips, a proven MLS scorer. BWP seems like the perfect player to poach some goals in the Champions League.
There was a bit more offseason turnover in Atlanta. Frank de Boer will have to find a way to seamlessly replace Julian Gressel, Darlington Nagbe, and Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez. Center back Fernando Meza and midfielder Matheus Rossetto will be trusted from the start, and the returning Anton Walkes could see minutes as well. The challenge of important games so early in the season: a number of players are still busy adapting to their new surroundings.
Naturally, it will be up to Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez, and Ezequiel Barco to control the ball and convert chances. Atlanta beat Club America in the Campeones Cup last summer. With America looming in the quarters, they might have to do it again.
The reigning MLS Cup champions are known for their tendency to sleepwalk through early parts of the regular season. CCL results have often been the casualty. They started last season much better than usual, though, and this year’s team has continuity from their run in 2019.
They upgraded at center back and added Joao Pedro to the midfield. Brian Schmetzer’s lineup looks solid throughout. Their draw is favorable. On paper, at least, the Sounders look like they could make a run.
There’s been little on-field turnover for NYCFC. They only lost two players (Ben Sweat and Ebenezer Ofori) who put in significant minutes last year, and neither’s absence will hurt too badly. They’re running it back with a team that picked up 64 points and won the Eastern Conference last year.
The only issue: they have a new coach, and Ronny Deila was only just appointed manager in early January. They’ll have to get used to him quickly and establish an identity on the fly.
Montreal, put simply, is not the team you should be expecting to make a run this year. Anything can happen in the CCL, but Thierry Henry is still relatively inexperienced as a head coach and this is the first year of the post-Ignacio Piatti era. It is a transitional period in Montreal. Their draw, featuring Saprissa in the first round and potentially Seattle in the quarters, isn’t bad, but the Impact might have trouble in this competition with a newly-meshing roster.