Is This the Year? MLS Teams Chase CONCACAF Champions League Glory

Posted By Peter Nolan on February 14, 2020

When 16 teams from eight different nations begin play next week in pursuit of the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) title, they will do it far from the bright lights of the Bernabeu, with an ocean between them and Anfield, the Allianz Arena, Camp Nou, and the like.

When the opening whistle blows Tuesday evening in Leon, Mexico and Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The differences will be especially stark for Major League Soccer teams based in the United States where the CCL is generally downplayed if not ignored completely.

No MLS side has won CCL since CONCACAF adopted its current format. The format is modeled on its far more glamorous cousin the, UEFA Champions League.

An earlier start to its season is a clear advantage to the Mexican clubs with the MLS season set to kick off on February 29. The Liga MX Clausura is already underway.

Regardless of that disadvantage, the lack of success by MLS teams coupled with rival Mexico’s total domination of the tournament is an embarrassment. The shortcomings are an annual reminder of Commissioner Don Garber’s long ago boast that MLS would soon be a top league. It’s a difficult case to make given Liga MX’s utter domination of the regional club championship.

Hoping to turn the tide and claim Major League Soccer’s first CONCACAF Champions League title in 2020 are 2019 MLS Cup Champion Seattle Sounders, Supporters Shield winning Los Angeles Football Club, Eastern Conference Champion New York City FC, U.S. Open Cup champs Atlanta United and Canadian champion Montreal Impact.

A place in the FIFA Club World Cup (where Liverpool are reigning champs) is the prize.

Here is a look at the MLS representatives in the 2020 CCL

Round of 16: Leg 1
Club Leon vs. LAFC
Estadio Leon
Tuesday, February 18: 10:00 PM ET

In just its second year in existence, the Bob Bradley led LAFC swept aside all-comers in 2019 on the way to setting an MLS record for most points in a season, only stumble to the eventual champion Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference Final.

L.A. will be looking to go a couple of steps further this season. Bradley may have to shore up his defense though following the surprise trade of U.S. international Walker Zimmerman to expansion club Nashville for financial considerations and an international spot.

L.A. may yet add a center back but the club believes it has the pieces in place to succeed again this season.

The CCL is just one prize that the ambitious Angeleno’s will be eying in 2020 but Leon will be a difficult first hurdle for LAFC.

With five matches played, Leon sits atop the Clausura with a record of four wins and one loss. The L.A. defense will face a challenge against a Leon side that is led by league leading goal scorer Angel Mena. Sometime U.S. international William Yarbrough is currently the number two goalkeeper for Leon.

The second leg will be February 27 at 10 PM ET at Banc of California Stadium.

Round of 16: Leg 1
Motagua vs. Atlanta United
Estadio Tiburcio Carias Andino
Tuesday, February 18: 10:00 PM ET

U.S Open Cup winner and 2018 MLS Cup Champions Atlanta United kick off the campaign to add to its trophy case when they face Honduran league leaders Motagua Tuesday night at Estadio Tiburcio Carias Andino.

The Five Stripes begin 2020 minus key pieces like Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel, Leonardo Gonzalez Pirez, Justin Meram, and Florentin Pogba. However, Atlanta has restocked with several newcomers, notably Argentine center back Fernando Meza, who will step in for Gonzalez Pirez.

Atlanta still has plenty of talent. A strong start to the CCL would be a fine way for Frank de Boer to jumpstart his second season at the helm.

Leg 2 – February 25, 8 PM at Fifth Third Bank Stadium

Round of 16: Leg 1
Deportivo Saprissa vs. Montreal Impact
Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Ayna
Wednesday, February, 8 PM ET

Wednesday’s match will be the first official game behind the Montreal bench for Arsenal and New York Red Bulls legend Thierry Henry, as he looks to rebuild his coaching reputation following his failed stint with Monaco.

Henry will have to make do without the sublime skills of Ignacio Piatti, who has left the Impact to return to his native Argentina with San Lorenzo. Coming so close to the start of the campaign this loss is potentially devastating to Henry and Montreal and makes a run to the CCL final, a la 2015, highly unlikely.

Leg 2 – February 26, 8 PM at Saputo Stadium

Round of 16: Leg 1
San Carlos vs. NYCFC
Estadio Carlos Alvarez
Wednesday, February, 8 PM ET

A pair of CCL debutantes meet in Costa Rica Thursday night when San Carlos hosts New York City FC. Like Montreal boss Thierry Henry, Ronny Delia will be making his competitive bow for his new side.

NYCFC will want to pick up the points on the road before heading “home” for the second leg at Red Bull Arena, the Harrison, New Jersey home of their rivals New York Red Bulls. NYC is forced to “host” San Carlos at RBA because of stadium issues with Yankee Stadium, issues that may finally be put in the past (albeit 4 or more years hence) if recent stadium news works out.

NYCFC may need some time to adjust to a new coach but Deila inherits a side that includes virtually the entire team that claimed the 2019 Eastern Conference, a familiarity that should ease that transition.

MLS fans will recognize at least one San Carlos player, longtime Real Salt Lake star Alvaro Saborio. Saborio scored 73 goals in 158 games for RSL and DC United before returning home to play in Costa Rica.

NYC should guard against overlooking the 37 year old, Saborio has notched 21 goals in 37 games since signing on with San Carlos in 2018.

Leg 2 – February 26, 6 PM at Red Bull Arena.

Round of 16: Leg 1
Olimpia vs. Seattle Sounders
Olimpico Metropolitano
Wednesday, February, 10 PM ET

Major League Soccer Champion Seattle Sounders close out the first round of CCL play when they face Olimpia in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

The defending MLS champs return the heart of their 2019 team in Nicolas Lodeiro, Stefan Frei, Raul Ruidiaz, Cristian Roldan, and Jordan Morris. It would not be a surprise to see Brian Schmetzer’s side get out of the gate quickly Thursday night.

Leg 2 – February 27, 10 PM at CenturyLink Field

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Peter Nolan

Peter Nolan has been on the soccer beat for many years now, covering the United States Men's and Women's teams, from the SnowClasico to Azteca and back again. Along with the US national teams, Peter will provide insight into the MLS and NWSL, with a focus on the NY Red Bulls and NYCFC.

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