Voices: Sam Jones

Ranking which MLS team could win 2023 Concacaf Champions League


Concacaf Champions League is back. And, for the first time ever, it includes an MLS title defense. It does not include the team that actually won the 2022 title (Seattle), which, yeah, is kind of weird. But that just means the burden has been placed on five other MLS teams – Austin, LAFC, Orlando, Philadelphia and Vancouver – to defend the honor of an entire league in 2023.

Some of those teams have a better chance of achieving that than others. All will have the tangential support of fans from around the league who are equal parts invested in the success of MLS and equal parts annoyed it’s not their team in the competition.

In short:

It feels like, once again, an MLS team has a legitimate shot at getting the job done. We know that’s not a given, though.

Let’s talk out why each team will and won’t give MLS their second-ever CCL winner.

Catch me up

  • Qualification method: 2022 Canadian Championship champions
  • Round of 16 opponent: Real España (Honduras)

Why they’ll win it

This is an admittedly tough sell. They’re the only MLS team in the competition who didn’t make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs last year and they’ve started this season with two consecutive losses after going up 1-0 early.

But the good news is they’re on the (relatively) friendly side of the bracket. If they make it past Honduran side Real España in the Round of 16, they’ll likely face LAFC in the quarterfinals. Then they’ll probably see Atlas or Philadelphia in the semifinals before playing in an “anything can happen!” final.

That’s not a gentle path. But it could include two familiar opponents. No, the Whitecaps aren’t better than LAFC or Philly right now. They should at least have a decent idea of what they’re dealing with and how to approach things though. The enemy you know, ya know?

Basically, we’re talking about familiarity and roughly 15 or so Julian Gressel assists driving a truly special run.

Why they ain’t gonna do it (sorry)

They’re a solid and well-balanced team, but they’ve looked far from a finished product through two games and likely don’t have the top-end talent you need to run through a gauntlet of the region’s best clubs.

Catch me up

  • Qualification method: 2022 US Open Cup champions
  • Round of 16 opponent: Tigres UANL (Mexico)

Why they’ll win it

Because all of those offseason moves will start paying off immediately and, in addition to clicking in attack, goalkeeper Pedro Gallese and the Lions’ backline will put in outstanding performance after outstanding performance.

Honestly, the last part seems relatively likely. It’s the first part I’m a bit concerned about. We have very, very little data on what this team actually is after their busy offseason, but it feels like it might be a moment before new DP Martín Ojeda helps elevate last year’s hot-and-cold attacking front.

Maybe it all comes together in CCL (of all places) and Orlando start posing a consistent threat going forward. At that point, the rest of the group is solid enough to keep things under control. And we know for a fact Oscar Pareja’s Orlando teams can grind out results. Even when they’re not at their best.

Why they ain’t gonna do it (sorry)

They got a mean, mean draw.

While they deal with potential growing pains behind integrating new pieces, Orlando meet 2020 CCL winner Tigres in the Round of 16. If they pull off a major upset, it’s likely they’ll see Pachuca, the winner of Club Leon and Austin, then face the survivor of a bracket with LAFC, Atlas and Philadelphia.

They somehow got the “Oops! All Liga MX/MLS” CCL package. Orlando have the most difficult road of any MLS team and not a lot of prep time to go down it.

Catch me up

  • Qualification method: Highest-ranked US team not already qualified
  • Round of 16 opponent: Violette AC (Haiti)

Why they’ll win it

They’re a heavy favorite to reach the quarterfinals after drawing Haiti’s Violette AC in the Round of 16. At that point, they’ll likely be up against up Club Leon, who finished 10th in Liga MX’s Apertura and currently sit seventh in the Clausura. Basically, they’re good, but not unbeatable. If they get past that point, it feels like we’re close to “anything can happen!” territory. And, I don’t know if you’ve noticed lately, but good things seem to happen pretty often to Austin.

They’ll likely control a lot of the ball, they’ll likely have some effective and pretty moments of soccer, and they have Sebastián Driussi to get them out of a tough spot if needed. It’s not a perfect recipe for CCL success, but it could be a recipe if they catch a few breaks.

Why they ain’t gonna do it (sorry)

Alexander Ring put in a solid performance at center back over the weekend, but we’re still looking at a big question mark at the position with Julio Cascante out injured for at least two months. Even with Cascante available, we saw what happened when pretty much the same group ran into a top-level LAFC team in the playoffs last year.

They’ll have to face a few top-level teams over two legs to get through CCL. That’s asking for a big leap from year-to-year. I’m not saying it can’t happen. Just that it’s really, really hard to do.

Catch me up

  • Qualification method: 2022 MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield champions
  • Round of 16 opponent: Alajuelense (Costa Rica)

Why they’ll win it

They’re LAFC and they have more continuity from last year’s MLS Cup/Supporters’ Shield double-winning team than I think even they expected.

On top of that, they have a favorable draw in Costa Rica’s Alajuelense, even if they’re more than capable of making life difficult. And not to dismiss a likely meet-up with Vancouver in the quarterfinals, but LAFC should have more than enough talent and cohesion to take care of business. From there, we’re probably looking at a legendary rematch with Philadelphia or maybe a difficult-but-less-personal meeting with Atlas in the semifinals.

They got the better of Philadelphia last year in regular-season and postseason play. Barely, but they still did it. And they certainly have quality across the board to give themselves a chance against whoever comes out of the other side of the bracket. LAFC are as solid a bet as anyone in this competition.

Why they ain’t gonna do it (sorry)

They have more continuity than expected, but they still have a question mark at striker without Chicho Arango. That’s a bigger question mark than anything Philadelphia are dealing with right now. It’s honestly the only reason I don’t have LAFC as MLS’s most likely winner.

Their solution to that issue on Saturday was to let Carlos Vela do false nine-ish things. It worked pretty well. But I think it’s fair to wonder if that’s a definite answer. Especially if they get to the semifinal and final stages. The good news is they have a decent amount of time to figure it out (MLS’s Primary Transfer Window is open until April 24 as well).

Catch me up

  • Qualification method: 2022 Eastern Conference regular-season champions
  • Round of 16 opponent: Alianza FC (El Salvador)

Why they’ll win it

Continuity, talent and a general Concacaf-y disposition.

The Union return the entirety of their starting lineup from last year’s narrow-as-can-be Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup runner-up side. They’ve added pieces like forward Joaquín Torres, midfielder Andrés Perea and center back Damion Lowe to give them a little more depth. And they’ve repeatedly shown they aren’t afraid to do all of the scraping and clawing it can take in Concacaf to get the job done.

Why they ain’t gonna do it (sorry)

There’s a Big Bad waiting for them in the semifinals. They should be able to handle El Salvador’s Alianza and likely an Atlas side that’s picked up just 22 points in 27 Liga MX games so far this season. At that point, LAFC should be waiting for them.

Not that Philly can’t beat LAFC. They were seconds away from doing it in MLS Cup 2022. It’s just they’ve been so equally matched over the last few seasons that their games always seem likely to swing either way. Even if they make it through, that’s the kind of two-legged stretch that can wear you down. The Union and LAFC are as likely as any team to win the whole thing. Which means they’re also each other’s biggest roadblock.

CCL 2023 bracket