National Writer: Charles Boehm

CCL Round of 16: What are advancement prospects for MLS teams?


Tropical conditions, plucky underdogs, actual dogs roaming muddy pitches, live brass bands in the stands, enormous trees behind one goal… and head-turning scorelines galore.

Real ones know: There truly is no tournament like the Concacaf Champions League. And verily, the opening week of North America’s top club competition did not disappoint, with riveting entertainment of all sorts both on and off the field.

The five MLS teams taking part in 2023's edition experienced, well, let’s say a wide spectrum of performances and outcomes in their Round of 16 first legs. Here’s a rundown of who’s in what kind of shape for advancement to the quarterfinals.

Reminder: CCL series use aggregate and away goals. We may get penalty kicks, too!

Cruising like Tom

In their visit to Costa Rican powerhouse LD Alajuelense, the reigning MLS champs faced arguably the most treacherous opening match of the quintet. “La Liga” currently top their domestic table with a hefty goal differential and have ample priors when it comes to ambushing CCL visitors at Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto.

Welp, so much for that! Whether it was a bad day for La Liga, the experience carried over by the five holdovers from the LAFC squad that reached the 2020 CCL final or simply the overwhelming quantities of quality, cohesion and hunger across Steve Cherundolo’s side, the Angelinos made light work of the Ticos.

The 3-0 away win spearheaded by Dénis Bouanga’s hat trick was comprehensive – exactly the type of statement performance a leading tournament contender would want to open with. While getting stunned by the same or greater scoreline in Los Angeles in leg two is not out of the question, it’s enough of a long shot that Cherundolo will probably be able to do some useful resting and rotating in that one.

Best-case scenario

Real España traveled to British Columbia having won just once in the past month, and summarily got thumped 5-0 by the suddenly scalding 'Caps, with Vanni Sartini’s side showing a level of fluidity and focus far beyond their first two MLS matches of the season, both dispiriting comeback losses.

Designated Player Ryan Gauld was prominently involved in three of VWFC’s goals, underlining how transformative he can be when on form. Even more importantly for Vancouver’s second-leg trip to Honduras next week, their heretofore leaky backline kept their shape and composure, which will be key to snuffing out Real España’s hopes of a crazy comeback.

Alas, their men’s national team’s history means most Canadian soccer watchers don’t need to be reminded that visits to Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula can spin way out of control with nauseating speed. So calm management – yes, that also includes whatever canny (but legal, of course) gamesmanship is required to keep a handle on the tempo – will remain vital on Wednesday.

But the Whitecaps, who like to do damage in transition, could not possibly have hoped for a better leg-one outcome to defend.

Hangin’ tough, but still outgunned

LAFC’s trip to Costa Rica was tricky. But the Lions’ visit to El Volcán (Estadio Universitario), the fearsome home of Liga MX's Tigres UANL, was far and away the toughest first leg of these five, simply because of the ferocious quality and depth on Los Felinos’ roster – on paper, it’s the best squad on the continent, we reckon – and their deep familiarity with this competition.

So escaping Nuevo Leon with a goalless draw, one in which they rode the gloves of Pedro Gallese but also created danger on the counterattack, was a hard-earned and very positive result for OCSC. Against almost anyone else in North America, it would be tempting to say they’re even in the driver’s seat now.

Yet this is Tigres we’re talking about.

They’re stacked. They’ve been through so much, and won so much, together over the years. They generally don’t get rattled and they need just one moment, one slip, one opening, to beat you even if you’re impeccable for the other 89 minutes and 59 seconds. And they most certainly won’t have any doubts that they can carve open Orlando at Exploria Stadium. So Oscar Pareja’s boys will have to match or eclipse Tuesday’s heroics next week.

Grinding along, but goals needed

The DOOPers’ series with Alianza remains poised at 0-0 as the scene shifts to Subaru Park. Will they rue their inability to snare an away goal in El Salvador on Tuesday? Should Jim Curtin be concerned about scoring zero times in their past 180-plus minutes? Can they really summon their bruising, devastating best level on demand, like flipping a switch?

Those answers aren’t objectively obvious. But for us, it goes no-maybe-probably, and that should be enough to see them through to the next round. Philly walked this road back in 2021, when they advanced to the CCL semifinals, and they haven’t lost at home since the 2021 Eastern Conference Final, when their squad got decimated by a COVID-19 outbreak and they STILL barely lost to eventual MLS Cup champs New York City FC.

They also tied the MLS record for most goals scored at home last year. And Curtin’s measured gamble to rest several regulars on Tuesday – we’d expect a similar tack when Chicago Fire FC roll into Chester on Saturday (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), by the way – will pay off handsomely if he can field a freshened front line of Julián Carranza and Mikael Uhre in leg two on Tuesday. Reminder: Thanks to the away goals rule, the Union must win to advance, while Alianza could slip by scoring in a draw.

So you’re saying there’s a chance…

Welp. The Verde & Black's inaugural international voyage crashed on the rocks in the Dominican Republic. Massive Haitian underdogs Violette AC – forced to play in the neighboring nation due to chronic instability that has also kept them from playing a normal league schedule in months – pulled off one of the biggest upsets in modern Concacaf history, a 3-0 win that puts Austin very much behind the 8-ball.

Josh Wolff took responsibility for the stinging setback and he does have a real center-back problem on his hands. No one covered themselves in glory in the limp performance, though, where Violette winger Roberto Louima and striker Miche-Naider Chéry lit the ATX defense on fire repeatedly.

Austin could yet pull this out of the fire. They just have to hope their home faithful pack Q2 Stadium and make it as loud and imposing as it’s ever been, driving them on in pursuit of their second-leg assignment: Score at least three goals and don’t concede any against the run of play. Leak one, and they’ll have to score five.

Here’s the thing. With smart spending and hiring, ambitious new clubs like ATX can make great leaps forward and skip a lot of MLS growing pains. But you don’t know what you don’t know, and their squad just doesn’t have a lot of collective experience in knockout situations. With no Audi MLS Cup Playoffs or US Open Cup in their 2021 debut season and a one-and-done Open Cup run last year (they got upset at San Antonio FC), the Verde & Black have now played just four win-or-else games in their existence.

Their record: 1W-2L-1D, with that draw an eventual penalty-kick shootout win over Real Salt Lake in last year's postseason. And in the two of those that occurred outside Austin, they’re 0-2. So they have to learn how to fly this CCL plane in midair.