Soccer's nearly back, and though MLS takes center stage this weekend, there is another competition that US soccer fans should follow with keen interest that (re)starts just two days later: the CONCACAF Champions League.
In his annual March to Soccer address, MLS Commissioner Don Garber made it clear that winning the Champions League was an important component of his stated mission of making MLS one of the top leagues in the World by 2022:
"We've got to do better in [the CCL], we've got to make it a priority," he said. "It is a goal for Major League Soccer to win the Champions League. If we are going to achieve our goal of being one of the top leagues in the world, we've got to be the top league in the region and we've got a lot of work to to win, to get over to the [FIFA Club World Cup] and hopefully do well over there."
The significance of the Champions League – and the possibility of mixing it up with the world's best clubs – is certainly not lost on the Commissioner, and it can continue to serve as a barometer for the league's growth.
Turning back to next week's quarterfinals, there are three MLS sides remaining in the competition: the Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy. But which one stands the best chance of winning it all and earning the right to represent MLS and CONCACAF on the world stage? Consider the path each team has to take:
The Houston Dynamo enter a quarterfinal series against Santos Laguna that's probably the most evenly balanced of the four. Santos, last year's runners-up, will be favored, but Houston have the personnel to mix it up with a team still rediscovering its identity after a recent coaching change.
Houston are the only MLS side to play their first leg at home and will be looking to take a result to Mexico. If they can put Santos on the back foot early in the series, it will give them the best chance of escaping from what has traditionally proven to be a very trying trip to Torreón, as the Sounders and Toronto FC will attest to.
After all that, though, a trip to the final would still require Houston to get past Seattle or Tigres UANL, who are no slouches either. Nonetheless, this is a side that's well-built, well-coached and can throw a number of different looks at you, perhaps giving it the edge in confronting the variety of teams that will stand in the way of a CCL crown.
Put simply, this is the toughest matchup an MLS side may face at any stage of the CCL. Tigres possess a fearsome attack directed by Argentine playmaker Lucas Lobos and are currently undefeated with a 6-0-2 record to start the Clausura 2013 campaign in the Liga MX.
Throw in questions surrounding Seattle's defense, and it means Seattle's midfield led by Osvaldo Alonso will have to turn in near-flawless performances to protect the backline and create quality chances with a significant disadvantage in possession.
Should the Sounders pull off the improbable, the bleak outlook may all of a sudden turn bright. They would face a semifinal against Houston or Santos Laguna – admittedly no easy task – on a major high after taking out such a strong Tigres side.
It's a big ask, but if Seattle can somehow top their Mexican rivals and gain some momentum, they could very well find themselves on a historic course.
3. LA Galaxy
The Galaxy can close the book on an hugely disappointing elimination from the 2011-12 tournament by defeating Herediano over two legs to advance to their first-ever semifinal of the CCL era, which they are favored to do on paper.
That isn't to say Herediano will be pushovers – after all, this is the team that went toe-to-toe with a first-string RSL side and came out on top, albeit by the slimmest of margins.
Even without the services of Landon Donovan, the Galaxy have the talent to top a skilled Herediano side. They might not be able to do it with the ease they handled their group stage opponents, but the presence of some first-team regulars could be a decisive factor.
As for a potential semifinal opponent, it would be a major shock if Monterrey fail to overcome Guatemalan side Xelajú. A potential semifinal tie against Los Rayados sounds less intimidating than it might have when the draw was made a few months ago, but the two-time defending champs always seem to raise their game for this competition, making it an immensely difficult task.