One draw down, two more to go until the Concacaf Champions league undergoes another metamorphosis/embraces chaos. I thought this analysis from fellow tire enthusiast Jon Arnold* summed up what we all knew before and after Wednesday night’s proceedings:

“The ‘losers’ of the draw are whichever MLS team has to face León in the first round since they’re the only Mexican team that ended up in Pot 2. The ‘winners’ are those who match up with the Caribbean teams.”

*This is your reminder to Get Concacafed and subscribe to Jon’s sometimes fun/sometimes serious newsletter about the region.

The loser appears to be Toronto FC. Double jeopardy since they can technically disappear from the competition, too. The Reds still have to handle Forge FC in the Canadian Championship final to qualify. The winners, as always and somehow even in the draw, were Liga MX, as Cruz Azul (Arcahaie from Haiti) and Monterrey (Atletico Pantoja of the Dominican Republic) will ease into the competition against clearly overmatched opponents.

Am I brave/stupid enough to take a crack at the bracket? Of course, keep scrolling, but first a snapshot of each journey toward the ultimate goal: history, a first-ever trophy lift and a chance to challenge the best of the best at the Club World Cup. No jinx for Toronto. I’ll write about them once they’re safely in.

Columbus Crew vs. Real Estelí (Nicaragua)

At first glance, fate by ping-pong ball seemed fortuitous for the defending MLS Cup champions.

The Concacaf nerds among us know Estelí from CCLs past. The Nicaraguans made the group stage four times during the past decade. They didn’t win any of the 16 games they played. They advanced to this edition of the Champions League via a Play-In round victory in the CONCACAF League, losing in the quarterfinals to Alajuelense (no shame in that!) then squeaking past Motagua and into the Round of 16 via penalties.

Estelí have won three straight tournaments in Nicaragua. They’re champions. It would be a historic, shocking upset if they kept the Crew from advancing to the quarterfinals. Estelíareis the “easiest” Round of 16 opponent for an MLS team, by far.

That’s the fortuitous part. The not-so-lucky part is that Columbus are the new kid at school and they’re sitting at a table with three bullies. Monterrey are the leader of that pack, professional executioners of MLS’s CCL dreams. Somehow get through a trip to Monterrey and Rayados? You’ve climbed the mountaintop, and your reward is to face down one of Club Leon, Cruz Azul or, if they’re fortunate, a Canadian club just to make the final.

Nobody said it’d be easy, and it’ll be even harder given the schedule realities. MLS is used to it by now, but the Crew would get Monterrey just 10 days after MLS opening day for the first leg of the quarterfinals while the Mexicans will be in mid-season form and building up to the Liguilla. Caleb Porter can’t afford to ease his team into 2021. He’ll have less than two months and two official games to prepare for a buzzsaw, but that’s what it takes and why MLS teams are still empty-handed.

David Gass said on Extratime Thursday that he still thinks the Crew are the best equipped to make a run. From a continuity and quality standpoint, it’s hard to disagree. If Toronto FC and LAFC can run the gauntlet, why can’t these current, reinforced champions?

Atlanta United vs. LD Alajuelense (Costa Rica)

Tough draw for Atlanta.

Alajuelense are the best team in Costa Rica at the moment, Saprissa included. To wit, the Purple Monster (more on them in a second) just sacked manager Walter Centeno after losing to Alajuelense in the CONCACAF League final and the league. They’re on form, experienced and have something to prove, and that’s without their top two goalscorers (Jonathan Moya, Alvaro Saborio … yes, he’s still doing it) and rock in the back (Adolfo Machado), all of whom moved on from the team that won CONCACAF League.

Didn’t matter. They haven’t lost a game in the Clausura and got their rival’s coach fired. Bryan Ruiz. Captain, legend. Johan Venegas. Alex Lopez. Veteran starters that MLS fans know well. They replaced Machado with longtime Liga MX center back Daniel Arreola and the backline has allowed three goals in seven games. Cuban forward Marcel Hernandez is the Saborio replacement. He’s got three goals and four assists.

Then there’s the youth movement: winger Alonso Martinez (22), central defender Fernan Faerron (20), midfielder Barlon Sequeira (22) and forward Jurgens Montenegro (20), who was tenuously linked with the Five Stripes just a few months ago. MLS scouts will be watching this two-legged affair closely, I expect.

Alajuelense are the best non-MLS/Mexico side in the competition, and arguably better equipped than some of those teams to make a deep run. They just won a continental tournament title and a Costa Rican title. They are in form and flying in the league. They are winners. They will believe they can and maybe should win, and they are right given these will be Gabriel Heinze’s very first games in charge.

Yes, Atlanta have the talent advantage, but Alajuelense might be favorites, all things considered. I’ve got scenes from Herediano and Motagua dancing in my head, and that opening leg in Costa Rica feels make or break, especially if Josef Martinez needs to be eased into things.

Philadelphia Union vs. Saprissa (Costa Rica)

Here’s what Jim Curtin had to say Wednesday night via Jonathan Tannenwald at the Inquirer: “This is the challenge our club wanted as we take the next step.”

Estadio Saprissa to start the season is no joke. They may be out of form, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be a formidable opponent for the Union, notably, CCL first-timers. Ariel Rodriguez is back at the club scoring goals, Marvin Angulo and Jimmy Marin pulls the strings, Kendall Waston is settling in and other MLS alums like Aubrey David, David Guzman and Christian Bolanos play big roles.

The next step, as Curtin put it, would be playing like a Supporters’ Shield winner and throwing their weight around a little in the region, starting with eliminating an established Concacaf giant.  Basically, doing what they didn’t do in the playoffs, but without Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie.

That’s a big ask, but this is what the Union wanted. They’ve shown they can win with their homegrowns. They’ve shown they can sell their Homegrown stars. Now, can they reload and keep the level high? Are they still the winners they were in 2020? Or will their level drop? That’s what 2021 is all about.

Portland Timbers vs. CD Marathon (Honduras)

I wish I had some truly magic spray for Sebastian Blanco, who the Timbers say may very well be back to start the season. Having Jaroslaw Niezgoda back for CCL would be nice, too.

Either way, the Timbers have the parts to advance, not just against the Hondurans, which is expected, but against Club America and whatever else the competition throws their way. They’re unfortunate that America are the likely opponents should they advance, but they’re fortunate there are no other Liga MX teams in their side of the bracket. Given their moves in the offseason – signing Felipe Mora permanently and bringing in experienced fullbacks – and Giovanni Savarese’s knack for knockout soccer, they’ve got an opportunity here.

Even more so if Blanco gets back for, say, that trip to Estadio Azteca. And if not, Portland know the counter is always there.

When it comes to Marathon, I know Luis Garrido and Henry Figueroa and that’s about it. I also know the Honduran league had to abandon competition in 2020 thanks to the pandemic, though they returned for a shortened Apertura that ended with Olimpia taking down Marathon in the final in January. The Clausura begins next week.

Again, the Timbers are at a scheduling disadvantage. Again, nobody cares. Savarese knows that. First the Hondurans, then Club America (or Olimpia … crazier things have happened).

Bracket Prediction, First Glance

I cannot be held accountable for these picks. They are what I’d call Very-Preliminary-Predictions. VPPs don’t count. They’re just thought experiments. Maybe jinxes. Non-binding.

Quarterfinals: Cruz Azul vs. Leon, Monterrey vs. Columbus; Philadelphia Union vs. Alajuelense, Club America vs. Portland Timbers

Semifinals: Leon vs. Monterrey; Union vs. Club America

Final: Monterrey over Club America

There’s a lot of free space there, but this is the Concacaf Champions League, after all. Keep your hopes in check and ride the wave when and if it comes, folks.