Pain doesn’t scare me, but I don’t seek it out. I happily mitigate risk in my daily life.
You’ll never catch me in a car without my seatbelt securely fastened. I always wear my helmet when I ride a bike. I dutifully lather up with sunscreen at the pool in the summer, SPF 45 of course. I wear gloves for even the most mundane yardwork. I stopped playing men’s league soccer years ago because I couldn’t bear the thought of another sprained ankle.
And yet, once a year, I suspend all caution and go full masochist. I embrace pain. In fact, I practically demand it and then wallow in the hurt like a pig in mud. I know full well that free space is and always has been disappointment, but I nevertheless commit my emotional (and sometimes physical) well-being to Major League Soccer’s fortunes in the Concacaf Champions League.
Bring on the torture. I want it. I need it. I feel compelled to swish the bitter taste around in my mouth before spitting it out and drinking again. Because without the pain – years compounding and decades stacking on top of each other – the joy of MLS’s eventual triumph wouldn’t feel nearly so sweet. Trust me, the breakthrough is coming, maybe even this year! HELL, WHY NOT THIS YEAR?!?! LET’S GO WIN THIS THING! LIGA MX’S HEGEMONY IS NO MORE!
Anyway, Charlie Boehm got you up to speed on this year’s particulars for MLS’s CCL participants. I highly recommend reading his piece before diving into this column. I was told I needed to rank MLS’s entrants by which team is most likely to win. I did that, but I also tried to imagine how a trophy run for each team might feel. It was cathartic.
Prepare yourself for the absolute worst. CCL starts on Tuesday!
You’ve got to get to the final to win the final, thus my top three teams come from the side of the bracket with a single Liga MX side (Club Leon). You can’t lose to a Liga MX team if you don’t play one. That’s the most basic CCL logic.
The Sounders are, in my mind, the best team in the league on paper. They’re two-deep (at least) with game-changing quality across the board, virtually unchanged (and yet reinforced by the returns of Jordan Morris and Nico Lodeiro) from a team that collected 60 points a year ago. Oh, and you may have heard they added Albert Rusnak as a Designated Player in free agency. They have a good mix of “been there, done that” veterans with Liga MX, Copa Libertadores and CCL experience, plus ambitious young players scratching and clawing for more PT.
Seattle have a habit of making finals. They’ve played in at least one final in 10 of 13 seasons in MLS, including five of the last six. They know how to survive and advance, even against Liga MX teams. Don’t forget they got to last year’s Leagues Cup final, where they lost to Leon, via victories against Tigres and Santos Laguna.
Their championship window is wide open, and they know it. They want to be the ones to raise their flag over the entire region. They won’t be intimidated by a trip or two south, and that’s a prerequisite for any team looking to knock Mexico off their customary position atop the Concacaf club hierarchy.
Charlie called these Sounders “MLS’s best and brightest hope.” I agree. Go win it.
How it'll feel...
Exactly like this:
After warming up with a tightly-contested Round of 16 series against Honduras' Motagua – redemption for losing to Olimpia on PKs two years ago at the same stage – the Sounders get revenge on Club Leon for that Leagues Cup final loss. No second-half collapse this time around! That guarantees an MLS team will make the final as the Rapids and NYCFC face off in the other quarterfinal.
Seattle are the team of fate this time around, and they advance to the final where the Rave Green pip Santos Laguna at the death thanks to Lodeiro’s 30-yard golazo, yet another revancha moment for the club, this time avenging the 2012-13 CCL semifinal loss to Herculez Gomez and Los Guerreros.
It's both glorious and miserable for non-Sounders MLS fans. Glorious because the dam has finally been broken and an MLS team is going to the Club World Cup. Miserable because Seattle supporters never let anyone hear the end of it. Like, seriously, they never shut up about it. Any MLS team that wins it from now on must pay fealty to Seattle for doing it first. They invented MLS winning CCL, after all.
I know NYCFC got it done in Philadelphia in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs without Taty Castellanos, but I can’t see them winning CCL without their No. 9. The most recent reports are that neither River Plate nor Palmeiras have met the valuation, though the transfer window deadlines in Argentina (Feb. 19) and Brazil (April) mean there is still time for that to change.
With Taty, though, NYCFC absolutely have the makings of a CCL contender – no MLS team can claim to be a favorite until the league wins one – and they have the most straightforward draw of any team in the tournament, avoiding a Liga MX matchup until at least the semis. Straightforward, ish. They’ll host the second leg of their Round of 16 matchup against Santos de Guapiles at LAFC's Banc of California Stadium because Yankee Stadium isn’t Concacaf approved and Red Bull Arena isn’t available (then open their 2022 title defense at the LA Galaxy on the weekend). Home-field advantage matters.
My biggest concern? This is not the same team that won MLS Cup a few months ago. James Sands is gone. So too are Jesus Medina and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. Keaton Parks is coming off leg surgery to remove a blood clot. Anton Tinnerholm is still working his way back from the Achilles tendon surgery that felled him last October. Then again, Talles Magno, Santi Rodriguez and Thiago Andrade should all be more settled and they still have Taty, which makes all the difference.
How it'll feel...
Like the beginning of a potential dynasty, fueled by a record-breaking fee for Taty in the summer. Imagine the front page of Mexican newspapers after Ronny Deila hits them with a championship striptease!
Headline: El emperador no tiene ropa!
How nuts would it be for a team without a single Designated Player to break MLS’s CCL duck? Even more nuts than said team finishing atop the star-studded Western Conference in 2021.
Even I, the rare CCL optimist, have trouble believing it can happen. The squad is largely unchanged, but there are changes – sure would be nice to have Kellyn Acosta’s Concacaf-ing skills and Cole Bassett’s late runs for this tournament. Then again, the Rapids proved last year that big-money players aren’t the sole formula for success. The good news is MLS doesn’t have a winning CCL formula for Colorado to break. Why couldn’t the history makers be outliers, too? The bad news is that all the other contenders have a handful of DP-caliber stars.
In other words, the Rapids aren’t treating this competition like preseason anymore, but the odds are still long. Same as they are for the other four MLS teams, really.
It helps that, should Colorado make a run, there’s a decent chance they wouldn’t have to face a Mexican club until the final, thus why I ranked the Rapids higher than the Revs, who boast far more attacking talent. If you’re looking for a recipe for success for MLS teams, avoiding Liga MX is the best one. But can they truly make a run? It doesn’t help that they haven’t signed the No. 9 they say they are chasing, and we saw how the current group fared in the playoffs last year without a reliable goal scorer.
How it’ll feel…
Like the best underdog story ever. Like the Spartans outflanking the Persian army. Like David felling Goliath with a single rock. Like Leicester City winning the Premier League. Like everything we thought mattered doesn’t after all. More than any other team, #MLS4Colorado fits. They’d be easy to root for, no matter who you support.
We’d be rooting for brotherhood over big names. We’d be rooting for the Rapids Way to reign supreme over an entire region.
Be mad, Revs fans. I did you dirty. Fourth? FOURTH?!?
I’m probably wrong. I’m probably underrating the Revs’ ability to knock off two Liga MX teams on the way to the final. While New England would surely rather have the Sounders or NYCFC’s draw, the best of MLS ought to appreciate the role Bruce Arena and his Supporters’ Shield-winning juggernauts will play in this tournament: chalk breakers.
Even better for Bruce, the Revs will ease into things with a home and home (like, literally home for both matches) against Haitian side Cavaly AS. Pumas (or Saprissa) will be next. Pumas are the “weakest” Mexican side in the field. The Revs can absolutely win that series. After that, likely either Santos or Cruz Azul. Again, the Revs – with the reigning MVP, arguably the best goalkeeper in the tournament, two 15-goal scorers and a settled squad – can do the business.
From there, they’d be in the final, and anything can happen. Matt Turner is gone in the summer. Probably Adam Buksa, too. Did I mention it seems certain they’ll have Jozy Altidore to call on, too? Winners win. The Revs are winners. I’m regretting ranking them fourth already.
How it’ll feel…
Like I’m a moron for ranking them fourth? Seriously, though, like the proper way to celebrate, appreciate and commemorate one of the best teams in the history of our league. They’ll have done it the hard way, and they will go down in history because of it.
I’ve got CF Montréal as the least likely to make a run here, but that doesn’t mean they’re some patsy for Santos Laguna to run over. Don’t count Montréal out. There’s upset potential here. Just ask Pachuca (insert Frank Klopas hip thrust) or Club America (big-time draw at Azteca) about what an underdog group from Quebec can do in this competition. They’re still just one of four MLS clubs to make a modern-day CCL final run, ever.
Hell, ask Santos Laguna supporters about Eddie Sebrango (legend) and that 2009 Montréal USL-1 team that was ahead on aggregate in Torreon before Matias Vuoso and Darwin Quintero spoiled what would have been a famous upset in the second half of the second leg.
Wilfried Nancy’s team is full of players capable of thriving in Concacaf environments. I don’t have to tell you Canadian internationals like Alistair Johnston, Kamal Miller and Samuel Piette have a feel for what it takes to grind out results in this region. Assuming Mason Toye and Romell Quioto are ready to run on to Djordje Mihailovic through balls, Montréal will be an absolute terror on the break, which plays well against Liga MX teams happy to dominate possession.
And if they want to make a final run, there’s a non-zero chance they’ll have to beat three (and maybe four) Liga MX teams to do it. So yeah, they’re fifth on this list, but they’ve been here before with the same expectations and shocked us all.
How it’ll feel…
Fitting. Spectacular. Historic. Truly reflective of the diversity of our region.
The club and its supporters have always loved and valued this competition. They have a rich history in Concacaf that deserves a cherry on top. That 2015 CCL final second leg at Stade Olympique is one of the best soccer events I’ve ever attended, despite the fact Club America spoiled the party. This time it’s Montréal’s party, and nobody throws a summer jam like the Quebecois.