I am a hopeless optimist. I hope that’s clear by now.

I was all-in on #MLS4RSL. I was at both final legs of Montréal’s insane, spellbinding, chaotic run. I was convinced that Toronto FC were the team of destiny. I was sure LAFC had done it with 20 minutes to play. I am still hopeful. I still believe the moment is coming, and soon. I believe that it could even happen this year.

For official purposes, I’ve decided to protect my heart. Calen Carr called it cautious pessimism on Extratime’s CCL preview show. That rings true to me. Until someone knocks Liga MX off its well-earned perch and ends the hegemony, my official take will be that this IS NOT the year Major League Soccer makes history, lifts that cup and heads off into the FIFA Club World Cup sunset.

I repeat, this WILL ABSOLUTELY NOT be the year MLS wins the Concacaf Champions League. Congratulations to Club America, Monterrey, Club Leon or, hell, even cursed Cruz Azul. We know well (or some among us do) that free space equals disappointment. No point delaying the inevitable. Take your victory lap now, Liga MX. Rub it in a little. We know this feeling well.

Before we start the march to elimination, here are the five MLS clubs the Mexican giants will have to get through in order of who has the best chance of falling agonizingly short in the most painful way possible!

(I’m going for the reverse jinx this year. Fingers crossed.)

1
Columbus Crew SC logo
Columbus Crew SC

1st leg: at Real Esteli – Thursday, 8 pm ET on FS1

2nd leg: vs. Real Esteli – April 15, 8 pm ET on FS1

First of all, they’re the reigning MLS Cup champions, and the champions got better. Noticeably so. We know Tim Bezbatchenko wants to finish the job he started in Toronto. That’s the sort of ambition and intent MLS teams need to show to get over the CCL hump. Hell, chase the quadruple! Why not dream Massive?

Relatively speaking, the draw was kind to the Crew. Real Esteli are, outside of perhaps Marathon, the most manageable Round of 16 matchup for an MLS team. They qualified via CONCACAF League and currently sit fourth in the Primera Division, four points out of first and with a plus-13 goal differential. Nicaragua captain Juan Barrera is the name to circle. Forward Jorge Betancur, winger Carlos Chavarria and right back Josue Quijano are also important members of the Selección.

Reading between the lines of Jacob Myers' reporting for The Columbus Dispatch, it seems clear that Caleb Porter will be without two projected starters in Artur and Vito Wormgoor for both the first leg in Managua and the second leg back at Historic Crew Stadium. Kevin Molino is easing back in after some hamstring tightness, too. I put almost no stock in preseason results, but they did just take Ls to Minnesota United (5-2) and Toronto FC (4-2).

That sounds a little rough, but preseason is preseason and I’m not too overly concerned about the injury issues. Aidan Morris was arguably the best player not named Lucas Zelarayan in MLS Cup, Josh Williams played every minute of the Cup run and the Crew’s depth, in particular on the wing, is as good as it gets in MLS. The real question is whether Columbus can find an early rhythm. If they can, they’ll ease past Esteli then tackle Monterrey, where anything can happen.

Monterrey might very well be the end of the line, but we’ve got to be real about the possibility Toronto FC (Club Leon), Philadelphia Union (Saprissa) and Atlanta United (Alajuelense) will all crash out in the Round of the 16. The Timbers are no shoo-in either. Until MLS wins this thing, we’re just arguing about which team gets the farthest before being knocked out.

The Crew are capable of winning. They’ll have to face a gauntlet to do it.

FLOOR: Barely get past Esteli before being swept aside unceremoniously by Monterrey in the quarterfinals.

CEILING: Work out some kinks against Real Esteli, a vintage Lucas Zelarayan “this is what you’re missing Liga MX” two-leg performance knocks out Monterrey and Columbus roll past, in all likelihood, two more Liga MX teams, all the way to sweet, sweet history.

2
Portland Timbers logo
Portland Timbers

1st leg: at Marathon – Tuesday, 6 pm ET on FS1

2nd leg: vs. Marathon – April 13, 8 pm ET on FS1

The Clausura has been a struggle for Marathon. The giants of San Pedro Sula have just two wins in 10 games and sit at the bottom of Group A. Not exactly the form you want to be in ahead of must-win games against the Timbers.

Of course, these are not the "MLS is Back" Timbers. Sebastian Blanco travelled to San Pedro Sula, but we don’t know how many minutes are in his legs or what form he’ll be in after knee surgery ended his 2020 prematurely. Jaroslaw Niezgoda isn’t back at all, and now Jeremy Ebobisse seems sure to miss the first leg. Portland are missing two Designated Players, and normally that’d be a death knell for an MLS team’s chances in this competition.

Normally, but not in this case.

The Timbers still have the Diegos (Valeri and Chara). They still have a Peruvian international and Liga MX vet up top in Felipe Mora. They have Yimmi Chara, who went from “Was he really worth the money?” to absolutely electric down the stretch. They have Eryk Williamson, arguably the best young central midfielder in the league, and Ebobisse (perhaps ready to play a part in leg two and beyond?), ditto for forwards. They have new outside backs who won’t be phased by Concacaf. They have veteran center backs, and a goalkeeper who can change games. They have depth behind that, too.

They have enough to get past Marathon. That doesn’t mean they will.

Portland ought to (on paper, of course), but I am not about to rule out a vintage Carlo Costly moment. The man is still doing it at 38. The problem is even if the Timbers take care of business, Club America looms. America have only lost once in the Clausura, with 10 wins in 13. Buzzsaw meet Timbers, again assuming they get out of the Round of 16.

FLOOR: Away goals elude Gio Savarese in Honduras, and a scoring draw in Portland knocks the Timbers out before Blanco can get back to full strength.

CEILING: Club America, who? Once Portland are past Las Aguilas, there won’t be another Liga MX club in their way until the final. At that point, Blanco ought to be back. There’s a path to history, for sure!

3
Toronto FC logo
Toronto FC

1st leg: at Club Leon – Wednesday, 8 pm ET on FS1

2nd leg: vs. Club Leon – April 14, 6 pm ET on FS1

Here are two quotes from Chris Armas of recent preseason vintage. Two sides of the coin…

PART 1: “Change is never easy. There’s a little bit of push back, there’s comfort levels, there’s what players are used to doing. So even though every day we see the excitement and a commitment to [understand] what we’re trying to do, in certain moments when things are flying out there, you revert back to what’s comfortable and normal and rehearsed. We’re not completely on the same page.”

PART 2: “[But] the boys are up for it, let me tell you. What a group of guys that are pushing every day. I can see that they love the energy, they love the intensity, they love playing fast. Jozy [Altidore] and Alejandro [Pozuelo], they just want to just press and go. They’re smiling under the mask.”

So which will be more important against a Club Leon side that’s not at the top of Liga MX like last year but are in-season and can match Toronto FC for quality and experience? Both? All of the above?

This tournament is famous for punishing the smallest MLS mistakes. They happen. It’s not preseason, but it kinda is, you know? Toronto need to get on the same page fast and limit the damage in transition moments, or else their tournament might be over fast. Oh, and smiles plus a vintage moment or two from Altidore and Pozuelo would go a long way in getting Toronto out of the Round of 16.

Good news. They can do that! If the Reds can get there, it’s anyone’s guess.

FLOOR: Armas has the vision, but there’s not enough early execution to take down a Liga MX foe off the jump. One and done.

CEILING: Star power matters and changes games, series and Champions League chances. What if Jozy is back to serve not as Pozuelo’s foil but his equal? Toronto FC could do one better than their 2018 run. Crazy things happen!

4
Philadelphia Union logo
Philadelphia Union

1st leg: at Saprissa – Wednesday, 6 pm ET on FS1

2nd leg: vs. Saprissa – April 14, 8 pm ET on FS1

Welcome to the Concacaf Champions League. Welcome to the Purple Monster. What a way for the Union to start their Shield-defending season. Soak it in, Sons of Ben.

Unfortunately, this is not what anyone but Saprissa wanted to hear from Jim Curtin as Philadelphia prepared for their first CCL journey:

“It’s not about who’s not with us, it’s about who is with us and who gets on the flight to Florida and ultimately Costa Rica to survive and advance. That’s all that matters now.”

Kacper Przybylko (back), Cory Burke (groin) and Sergio Santos (toe). All nursing injuries, all likely to miss the first leg. Jose Martinez is trying to get back from a preseason knock, but the first leg may come too early. That’s three starters, including Curtin’s top three forward options, and a darn-near-Best XI d-mid and counterattack killer … all questionable.

Oh, and in case you somehow forgot, Philly sold a couple of Best XI players from last year’s team for eight figures, too.

The good news is that Saprissa aren’t flying by any measure. They trail Alajuelense by 13 points in the Primera Division. They’ve draw nine of 16 matches, with just four wins. They are winless in five in the league. They are not the juggernaut they’ve been in previous CCL campaigns. They are, however, going to see this competition as a way to salvage their season.

Here are some names you’ll recognize: Christian Bolanos, David Guzman, Kendall Waston, Jimmy Marin. Prepare for any and all to break our collective hearts. That’s just how this competition seems to work.

As for the Union, their 2021 is all about keeping the standard high after selling Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson. The replacements largely came via internal means, which ought to mean the “team is the star” ethos from last year’s Shield run continues in uninterrupted fashion. I hope that means their late regular-season form holds in this competition, but that seems unlikely just based on timing, the injuries and Philly’s lack of CCL experience.

FLOOR: The moment comes too soon. Saprissa are too experienced in Concacaf’s dark arts. No matter what happens, the Union ought to be proud.

CEILING: Semifinal loss to Club America after two thrilling series. I’m less cautious and more pessimistic about the Union’s chances of pulling off an epic Liga MX upset. That might be dumb. I’d have said the same thing about Real Salt Lake and the CF Montréal. Then again, both lost when faced with a traditional Mexican power sooooooo…

5
Atlanta United logo
Atlanta United

1st leg: at Alajuelense – Tuesday, 8 pm ET on FS1

2nd leg: Alajuelense – April 13, 6 pm ET on FS1

Was this a #content play? No comment.

Be angry, Atlanta United supporters. Discuss and tweet this column. Slam me. Fill up my mentions. After all, this ranking doesn’t matter. Your club is the same as the other four on this list. They aren’t winning this tournament anyway ;)

Here’s my logic.

1. Alajuelense are the toughest matchup outside Club Leon, maybe even tougher. Zero losses in the Costa Rican Clausura. Just three losses in 16 games in the Apertura. Invierno champions. CONCACAF League champions. They’re winners, straight up, and beating them in the first game of the season with a new manager is a daunting task. Google young goal-scorers Jurguens Montenegro and Adrian Martinez, Cuban Marcel Hernandez and Barlon Sequeira. You’ll recognize a handful of Concacaf legends when you see Bryan Ruiz, Alex Lopez, Johan Venegas and Jose Salvatierra on the team sheet.

2. We don’t know which Josef Martinez we’re going to get, if we get him at all. It seems he’s ready to go, and maybe conventional injury wisdom doesn’t apply to the father. Still, this season is bigger than CCL for Atlanta. If Josef isn’t Josef, there’s no reason to rush him along. And if Josef is not Josef, getting out of the first round is going to be tough.

3. New faces. Gabriel Heinze, for one. Santiago Sosa, Ronald Hernandez and reportedly Alan Franco (or was that another CB mirage?), just to name a few penciled-in starters. These must-win games feel like they come just a tad early.

4. Did I mention Alan Franco? That’s still a rumor, though I could have sworn Heinze said it was done. Perhaps they’ll get their center back, but it won’t be for this series. That’s a potential weak spot for Alajuelense to exploit.

That all may be, but it’s also possible Josef is ready to go and Atlanta handle Alajuelense, or even just sneak by the Costa Rican champions. Either would be fine. After that, anything is possible. Club America is a beast but they’re also the only Liga MX team on Atlanta’s side of the bracket.

FLOOR: Josef isn’t the old Josef (yet) and Alajuelense do what they’ve done for the past year. Win.

CEILING: Alajuelense was a stressful, difficult out, but it brought the squad together. The Union (or Saprissa) fall next. Josef is rolling. Everyone knows their roles. Club America are favorites, but they don’t intimidate the Five Stripes. Once Atlanta are in the final, why not win it?