Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Leagues Cup tiers: Which Knockout Round teams are favorites?

Doyle - Leagues Cup tiers - 8.1.23

The Leagues Cup group stage is now, officially, in the books. That process brought us about two weeks of games fueled by a solid dose of unpleasantries almost every time out as the wheat was thoroughly separated from the chaff (and, somehow, Santos Laguna).

Now, with a day to catch our breath and the knockout rounds just 24 hours away, it feels like a good time to take a look at the remaining 32 teams and, yes, break them into tiers.

As always these teams are roughly in order of how good I think they are, but what really matters is the tier designation.

And remember: Everyone's chasing that shiny trophy, one of three 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup spots, some hefty prize money and bragging rights.

Tier 1: The Heavyweights
  • CF Monterrey (Liga MX)
  • Tigres UANL (Liga MX)
  • Club América (Liga MX)

When MLS folks – fans, front-office types, players, league officials – talk about needing to compete with the best in the region, they’re talking about these three giants. MLS sides actually have a winning record and positive goal differential against Liga MX sides in CCL play since 2016 if you remove the series against this triumvirate. Add those series back into the mix, however, and it gets grim.

And that’s because this trio basically owns the region. They’ve won eight of 13 CCL titles since 2010, and are the favorites to win every competition they enter. Having the biggest checkbook helps: In the past five years these teams have paid $10 million or more for 13 different players. MLS, as a whole over the entirety of the league’s history, has paid that much for just seven (four of those by Atlanta United).

Right now, based on form and past international precedent, it feels like Monterrey are probably the favorite here. They did their typical thing in game one and counterattacked Real Salt Lake to death, then had to play on the front foot after spotting the Seattle Sounders an early 2-0 lead but still cruised to a 4-2 win.

Los Rayados, led by Argentinian forward Germán Berterame, were just ruthless.

Tigres – who are the oldest team in the tournament in terms of age-weighted minutes – were less impressive in the group stage and seemed to be putting out just enough effort to win. They beat Portland and then San Jose by a goal each, never really getting out of third gear. That also describes the slow start to their Apertura season, which most (including me) are chalking up to a championship hangover after their Clausura win.

Then there’s Las Aguilas. After their 4-0 win over St. Louis in game 1, it looked like they were the best team in the tournament. Then they got clobbered 4-1 in the second game vs. the Crew, and that scoreline was not a mistake: Columbus utterly dominated the final 70 minutes.

Without taking anything away from Wilfried Nancy & Co. (you’ll see the Crew near the top of the next tier), I’m going to chalk much of América's performance on Monday night up to complacency given the ease of their first group game. And I won’t be at all shocked if the blowout loss serves as a wake-up call.

Bear in mind América's front three of Julián Quiñones, Henry Martín and Leo Suárez is maybe the best in the region, and is certainly the most well-balanced. Columbus only had to deal with all three of them for about 10 minutes in the middle of the second half. The Fire will have to handle that trio from the start (#PrayForChicago).

Anyway, give me the choice of these three vs. the field and it’s pretty easy: I’m taking these three.

Tier 2: Legit Contenders

Just because the triumvirate are favorites doesn’t mean it’s a fait accompli (ask Toronto, who beat both Tigres and América in the 2018 CCL before losing in the final to a much worse Chivas side). They can be beaten, though even in Liga MX they are dominant, winning 11 of 24 titles since the 2010 Apertura.

Here’s the group of teams that could win this thing without sending me into a state of shock-induced catatonia:

  • Club León (Liga MX)
  • Philadelphia Union (MLS)
  • FC Cincinnati (MLS)
  • Columbus Crew (MLS)
  • LAFC (MLS)
  • New England Revolution (MLS)
  • Deportivo Toluca (Liga MX)
  • Atlas FC (Liga MX)
  • Nashville SC (MLS)

This is the mix of smaller but dangerous Liga MX sides (including the current CCL champs in León) and the best in MLS.

A lot of folks seem to think of León as an older side, but other than their ageless wingers (Ángel Mena is 35 and still great), they’re mostly composed of guys smack in the primes of their careers. They will not be overawed by anything they come up against in this tournament.

Philly and Cincy are probably the two best MLS teams at the moment, and I don’t think anyone would be shocked if either of them got on a run that ended with a trophy. Philly are a little more dynamic in their ability to change shapes this year, which gives them a built-in tactical advantage Jim Curtin hasn’t been afraid to use, and that we saw in group stage wins over Querétaro and Tijuana. Cincy, meanwhile, picked up probably the best win of the group stage for any MLS club when they smashed a very good Chivas side (coached by former Fire manager Veljko Paunovic) 3-1 behind a Brandon Vazquez hattie.

As I said above: Club América were probably victims of a bit of complacency and overconfidence. But no matter the circumstances you have to be really, really good to hang four on the biggest team in the region. Nobody in any competition had done it since 2020, a span of 136 games.

So yeah, the Crew just sold their No. 10 in Lucas Zelarayán, and their defense is kind of questionable, and young Patrick Schulte is prone to the occasional gaffe. And it feels a year too soon for them to lift a trophy.

They belong in this tier anyway. They know who they are, they know how they want to play (it’s the prettiest soccer in MLS) and they showed they can impose that style on giants.

LAFC are not remotely the same LAFC side that won the Supporters' Shield/MLS Cup double last year, and they don’t look like the same side that made it all the way to the CCL final this spring. They have been poor since then, but they’ve made some additions this window that could (should?) lead to better balance. And in terms of overall talent, they check the boxes.

Same goes for the Revs, though I worry their propensity to throw both fullbacks forward at the same time leaves them wildly vulnerable to being countered to death. Still, they can hang three on anybody in this tournament, and that’s a pretty good foundation to build from even if it’s high-risk, high-reward.

The same goes for Toluca with their super-dynamic wingbacks, as we saw in their 4-3 win over Nashville. They were able to make the field huge and put fractures in that Coyotes’ diamond, then pull it apart. They followed that up with a comfortable 4-1 win over Colorado.

Atlas have had to rebuild after their back-to-back league titles 18 months ago, and I’m not quite sure they belong at this level, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

I would maybe have Nashville higher on this list if I didn’t have the sneaking suspicion Gary Smith was slightly more interested in squad rotation and rest than he was in a deep run.

Tier 3: They Can’t Possibly Pull it Off, Can They?
  • Inter Miami CF (MLS)

They’ll have the best player on the field by a mile in every single game they play. I also think they’ll have the second-best player, and they’ve managed to create instant balance all over the field under Tata Martino. Of course, a 4-3-3 with Lionel Messi inverted on the right, two running 8s in front of Sergio Busquets and a field-stretching left winger would look perfect from the jump. Of course!

But 1) this team was a disaster as recently as two weeks ago, and 2) Atlanta and Cruz Azul are not good right now. Both are disorganized through midfield, which gave Messi and Busquets time and space – more than any of the remaining teams would give them – to have an outsized impact even by their own lofty standards.

Still, though… it’s Messi. He’s the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen, and the pieces around him fit. For the past two decades that’s been a trophy-winning blueprint.

Tier 4: An Uphill Climb

These are teams that, frankly, I do not think can win this thing:

  • Orlando City SC (MLS)
  • New York City FC (MLS)
  • Cruz Azul (Liga MX)
  • Querétaro FC (Liga MX)
  • Real Salt Lake (MLS)
  • CF Pachuca (Liga MX)
  • Pumas UNAM (Liga MX)
  • FC Dallas (MLS)
  • Minnesota United FC (MLS)
  • New York Red Bulls (MLS)
  • Houston Dynamo FC (MLS)
  • Sporting Kansas City (MLS)
  • Mazatlán FC (Liga MX)
  • FC Juárez (Liga MX)
  • Vancouver Whitecaps FC (MLS)
  • Portland Timbers (MLS)
  • Chicago Fire FC (MLS)
  • Charlotte FC (MLS)
  • D.C. United (MLS)

Orlando City gave Tigres hell in the CCL Round of 16 this spring and have only gotten better since then. I am maybe underrating their chances here, especially since Duncan McGuire is in match-winning form as a No. 9.

NYCFC have been desperately in need of one of those since Taty Castellanos left this time last year, and hope they’ve found one in new signing Mounsef Bakrar. The Algerian got his first Pigeons goal in his first start, though take it with a grain of salt since it came against a Toronto side that’s going to go down as the most disappointing team in recent MLS history.

Cruz Azul and Querétaro looked helpless against good teams. I don’t think they have it. RSL looked helpless against Monterrey specifically – again, I think that’s the best team in the region right now, so I might be over-indexing that loss. But it was emphatic and the West region is a blender.

Pachuca are actually the most successful Liga MX side of the past 25 years: seven league titles, five Champions League/Cup titles, and a Copa Sudamericana title, which makes them the only Concacaf team to have won a Conmebol tournament. And it’s not like they’ve disappeared since then – they got a bye directly into the knockout rounds here by topping the Liga MX aggregate table in 2022.

But unlike the three giants in Tier 1, Los Tuzos develop and sell (they have the best academy in Mexico), which means there are more ups and downs in their year-to-year performances. They’re in a down period now after raking in nearly $35 million in sales over the past three windows and reinvesting less than a third of it into the roster. Writing Pachuca off makes me itch, but this just isn’t the same group they were a year ago.

Pumas have had a good start to the Apertura and have a good No. 9 and a good CB pairing, but I think the best teams will run right through their midfield. Dallas are still a goalscorer short, as are Minnesota, RBNY and Houston (one of those teams should maybe make Pumas an offer they can’t refuse for Juan Dinenno).

Sporting were excellent against Cincinnati before Alan Pulido got his red, and looked so comfortable pulling Chivas apart and controlling the tempo in their 1-0 win on Monday night. I don’t think they have enough to do that five more times, but we’ll see.

Mazatlán and Juárez are fun stories, but no threat. Vancouver have had lots of good moments this year, including their late comeback to knock the Galaxy out, but just traded their most influential player and aren’t the kind of lock-down defensive team that can 1-0 their way through a bracket. The same goes for Portland, Chicago, Charlotte and D.C., each of whom did well just to get out of the group.