Climbing the Ladder: Built for Champions League success?

The CONCACAF Champions League is back. It’s only been three months since Real Salt Lake’s heartbreaking defeat to Monterrey in the finals, and the new edition has already kicked off. Three Major League Soccer teams begin play in the preliminary round this week as they battle for a spot in the group stage, to which the Colorado Rapids and LA Galaxy have received a bye.

Tuesday night, the Seattle Sounders traveled to Panama to face San Francisco FC and ended up with a disappointing but manageable one-goal loss. On Wednesday night, as the MLS All-Star Game takes place several hundred miles south, Toronto FC will host Real Estelí of Nicaragua, while on Thursday FC Dallas take on Alianza in El Salvador. All three are heavily favored to advance.

1. History vs. the opposition.

While Toronto’s games against a Nicaraguan team are a first for the league, MLS teams have met up with Salvadoran and Panamanian teams plenty of times before.

Overall, MLS teams have only lost once in nine meetings in international competitions with teams from El Salvador (4-1-4). They have also won both two-legged ties against them in this tournament’s history. Last year, Seattle ousted Isidro Metapán, and the year before, D.C. United moved on after a penalty-shootout victory against Luis Ángel Firpo. The latter was also the first and only time that a two-legged series involving an MLS team in international play went to penalties.

The international record against teams from Panama is 6-4-3, including Tuesday night’s match. Meanwhile, the two-legged series advancement record is split 1-1, with Columbus’ round of 16 win over Árabe Unido in 2003 balanced out by Chivas USA’s loss to Tauro FC in 2008.

Alianza and Real Estelí are new opponents, but the Houston Dynamo previously defeated San Francisco 2-1 at home and drew 0-0 away in the 2008-09 group stage.

  Players Games Goals
Colorado 7 52 2
FC Dallas 4 22 0
LA Galaxy 17 41 8
Seattle 21 118 8
Toronto 14 64 3

2. Team Experience?

Which teams have the most prior Champions League experience? The chart at right provides some answers.

“Players” refers to the number on teams’ current roster who have gotten onto the field in this competition, while “Games” and “Goals” are the combined total of those players.

FC Dallas, last year’s MLS Cup runners-up, combined have fewer players with CCL experience than any of the other three. Those three all took part in the 2010-11 competition, though none advanced past the group stage. Will the extra experience be a factor, even if it didn’t result in advancing very far?

It’s interesting to note that the Rapids brought in multiple offseason acquisitions with CCL experience to add to their depth (Tyrone Marshall, Joseph Nane and Sanna Nyassi), while Dallas only brought in one (Andrew Jacobson).

Speaking of the Rapids, Pablo Mastroeni currently has accumulated the most regular-season games played in MLS without playing in the Champions League. He’ll be able to scratch that off the list soon along with teammate Drew Moor, who ranks third. Currently second and soon to be take over first is San Jose’s Chris Leitch.

Two of the MLS coaches involved have previous experience, as both were a part of MLS’ two winning teams. Seattle’s Sigi Schmid has coached 16 CCL games and won the 2000 tournament with the Galaxy, but only has a record of 4-8-4. That’s due in part to that winning team advancing in the quarters and semis through penalties, counted as draws.

Meanwhile, LA’s Bruce Arena has half of Schmid’s total number of games with eight, but more wins at 5-2-1. That includes a perfect 3-0 record and a plus-11 goal difference with D.C. United in 1998. Schellas Hyndman, Gary Smith and Aron Winter will all be making their continental debuts.

3. Player Records.

Let’s take a look at a couple of individual records for MLS players throughout the tournament’s history. Here's a look at the players in MLS who have made the most Champions' Cup/Champions League appearances:

Rank Player Games Teams
1 Dwayne De Rosario 29 SJ, HOU, TOR
2 Jaime Moreno 24 DC
3(t) Wade Barrett 22 SJ, HOU
3(t) Brian Mullan 22 SJ, HOU
5(t) Brian Ching 20 SJ, HOU
5(t) Ben Olsen 20 DC
5(t) Clyde Simms 20 DC
5(t) Craig Waibel 20 SJ, HOU
9 Bobby Boswell 19 DC, HOU
10(t) Brian Carroll 18 DC, CLB
10(t) Devon McTavish 18 DC

Of this group, only Brian Mullan will have the opportunity to add to his total this season. If the Colorado Rapids make the knockout stage, he could pass Dwayne De Rosario by the end of the 2011-12 edition.

Rank Player Goals
1 Luciano Emilio 9
2(t) Christian Gómez 8
2(t) Álvaro Saborío 8
4 Roy Lassiter 6
5(t) Brian Ching 5
5(t) Jamie Moreno 9
7(t) Edson Buddle 8
7(t) Dwayne De Rosario 8
7(t) Dema Kovalenko 6
7(t) Steven Lenhart 5
7(t) Carey Talley 5

After Mullan, the most experienced players in this year’s tournament are Seattle’s Nate Jaqua (15), Colorado’s Marshall (12) and Toronto’s Andy Iro (11).

But what about goal-scoring in CONCACAF play? At right is a chart of the top 11 all-time leading MLS scorers in the tournament.

This is seemingly the one scoring record that Landon Donovan isn’t anywhere close to, yet he has still scored three goals in nine games.

That’s enough to make him the co-leader among the MLS players who’ll be competing this year, along with Seattle’s Michael Fucito. Chad Barrett and Brian Mullan are next with two.

Real Salt Lake’s Álvaro Saborío shot up the table with eight goals in only one year, but went scoreless in the final three games against Saprissa and Monterrey to finish one behind Luciano Emilio.

Still, eight is easily the best for a single edition.