First off, if you’re reading this, congratulations and welcome to the 2018 MLS adventure.
Sure, the regular season doesn’t kick off until next month and only five of the league’s teams are involved in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) action that begins this week. But just like your favorite indie band gone mainstream, sometimes it’s more fun to hop on the train early. And a Round of 16 first leg curtain-raiser on a profoundly soul-chilling February night in Commerce City, Colorado counts as the North American soccer equivalent of catching Radiohead at a dive bar in 1992. So pat yourself on the back, you early adopter.
Considering that it’s fundamentally still preseason, and that one of the teams involved underwent a complete overhaul this winter, and that the single-digit temperatures on the Front Range are quite likely the lowest any two MLS teams have ever experienced … Tuesday’s game was surprisingly fun to watch.
The rebuilt Colorado Rapids held their own for long stretches, flashing real promise in new coach Anthony Hudson’s preferred 3-5-2 system and going agonizingly close to taking a shock early lead via Dominique Badji, who’ll replay his unfinished first-half 1-on-1 vs. Alex Bono a time or two in his head in the days before Leg 2.
That said, Toronto FC still look like a reasonable approximation of the all-conquering titans who destroyed everything in their path last year. At this time of year in particular, deep familiarity and elite talent are usually trump cards, and so it proved in TFC’s 2-0 win.
For much of this league’s history, the dominant threat to championship teams has not been the trailing back of competitors so much as the inherent destabilization of success in a parity-oriented competition. Or to put it more simply: In the MLS of old, title winners often fell apart.
Stars moved abroad or sought pay raises that their current team’s salary budget didn’t allow. Reserve players looked elsewhere for greater minutes, chipping away at depth. And the simple reality of success put a target on the backs of winners that often proved deadly over time.
So it’s fascinating to watch Toronto declare their intention to build an even bigger juggernaut than the one that marched to a 2017 treble triumph without precedent in North American soccer history – and then go out and do the deals to actually make that a real possibility. After they heartbreakingly lost the 2016 MLS Cup final to Seattle on penalty kicks, the Reds went out and got Victor Vazquez, who proved nearly as important as the familiar Designated Player trio of Giovinco, Bradley and Altidore last year.
Now, as they eye CCL glory for a follow-up to last year’s heroics, TFC have bolstered an already-fearsome squad with wide threats Gregory van der Wiel and Auro, the latter of whom made an instant impact with the assist on Tuesday’s second goal. This is a product of augmented ambition, yes, and the multiple injections of various forms of allocation money over the past couple of years help a great deal as well.
So given these early returns, it’s safe to talk about the Reds as the best hope of breaking MLS’s long-running CCL trophy drought in quite some time, even with a nod to the incredible run their hated rivals from Montreal embarked on in 2015. But in a laughably cruel twist of fate, TFC’s reward for finishing the job on the Rapids next week will be a quarterfinal date with arguably the best club in North America over the past decade or so.
Yes, Mexican giants Tigres UANL sit in Toronto’s quadrant of the CCL bracket, and are in good shape to advance past Herediano even after the Costa Ricans stormed back from a 2-0 deficit at home to tie the first leg of their series at 2-2 with an injury-time goal from former MLS striker Jairo Arrieta in Tuesday’s early CCL game.
So if the seeding and the form chart hold, TFC and Tigres – a matchup of Liga MX’s and MLS’s reigning champs and arguably the top two teams on the continent at present – will face off in the next round. It’s a clash worthy of the CCL final, but barring two unlikely upsets from next week’s road underdogs, we will get it far earlier in the tournament.
And it promises to be a doozy.