Five MLS teams are taking part in this year’s tournament, hoping to become their league’s first side to win the competition in its modern incarnation. All five kick off their campaigns with Round of 16 first-leg games this week.
It’s a tricky task for MLS teams, who must ramp up their preseason preparations ahead of schedule in order to keep pace with regional opponents who are mostly in midseason form and fitness. Here’s a look at those matchups, and what might unfold over the next few weeks.
New York Red Bulls vs. Atletico Pantoja
The New York Red Bulls reached the semifinals of last year’s CCL before suffering an agonizingly narrow aggregate loss to eventual champions Chivas de Guadalajara. This year they carry real hopes of an even deeper run.
They’ll have to swiftly replace midfield engine Tyler Adams and keep key striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who turns 34 next month, firing at a high rate, however. Preseason outings have looked fairly solid and continuity should be expected given their well-established tactical identity.
Their first adversaries are CCL debutants. After winning last year’s Caribbean Club Championship – edging Jamaican side Arnett Gardens in a 6-5 penalty-kick shootout in the final – Atletico Pantoja carry the banner for the Dominican Republic, a baseball-obsessed island nation lately turning its gaze towards the beautiful game. Good news for the Red Bulls: The DR’s domestic season doesn’t start until April.
Houston Dynamo vs. CD Guastatoya
Semifinalists in the old Concacaf Champions Cup in 2007 and 2008, the Houston Dynamo return to CCL with high hopes after a six-year absence.
Over the winter they aggressively refurbished a roster that won the U.S. Open Cup but was exposed in league play last season. Just as importantly, Houston kept the attacking trident of Alberth Elis, Mauro Manotas and Romell Quioto intact despite transfer interest from abroad. The biggest doubts linger around their reshuffled and somewhat long-in-the-tooth back line.
They face a tricky opening opponent. A new power on the Guatemalan landscape, Guastatoya claimed the last two Liga Nacional championships and after an 0-3-3 start to this year’s Clausura, have won two straight games heading into the Dynamo series.
An unfortunate setback for Los Pecho Amarillo (“The Yellow-Breasted”): Their cozy home ground, Estadio David Cordon Hichos, doesn’t meet CCL venue standards and so they will play their home games at Estadio Nacional Doroteo Guamuch Flores, 90 minutes away in Guatemala City.
Sporting KC vs. Toluca
Last year MLS teams didn’t meet Liga MX opponents until the quarterfinals; Sporting Kansas City weren’t quite so lucky this time. The 2017 U.S. Open Cup champs kick off their CCL run with the toughest first-round assignment among MLS’s representatives. If there’s a silver lining for SKC, it’s the reality that Toluca have changed markedly since their run to the 2018 Clausura final last May.
After finishing tops in the regular-season standings in that campaign, Los Diablos Rojos slipped to seventh place in the fall Apertura, bowing out to eventual champs Club America in the first round of the playoffs. Today they find themselves languishing in the bottom half of the early Clausura table, with a 2-4-1 record and just six goals in those first seven matches.
Though key defender Ike Opara is gone, SKC’s biggest concern appears to lie up top. Strikers Khiry Shelton and Diego Rubio moved on this winter, but a collective-minded approach featured in a string of blowout preseason wins over lower-division opponents.
Atmospheric conditions could figure heavily in this series: Sporting will hope for frosty winter weather in this week’s home leg, while Toluca stand to benefit from their city’s lung-bursting elevation of 8,750 feet above sea level.
Atlanta United vs. CS Herediano
Can the Five Stripes take Champions League by storm just as they did in their first two years of MLS play? That’s the burning question as Atlanta prepare for their Concacaf debut.
Reasons to believe: Josef Martinez is arguably the greatest finisher in MLS history, new playmaker Pity Martinez is a ferociously talented and motivated replacement for record-setting departure Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco appears ready to step up in his second season and ATLUTD’s supporting cast look well-suited to fight on multiple fronts.
Reasons for doubt: First-year coach Frank de Boer is new to all things North American soccer, much less the vagaries of CCL, and is implementing tactical and philosophical tweaks this preseason that could take time to soak in. And Herediano – one of Costa Rica’s top clubs, the reigning league champs with 27 league titles to their name as well as the 2018 Concacaf League winners – are well-placed to stage an ambush on the favorites from Georgia.