Montréal are the only MLS team drawn against a Liga MX side for their Round of 16 series, with Santos Laguna waiting for a Tuesday opener at Estadio Corona (10 pm ET | FS2, TUDN in US; OneSoccer in Canada). Head coach Wilfried Nancy's squad, Canadian Championship winners in 2021, is emerging from preseason camp to face a Guerreros group already five games into their Clausura campaign.
It's a tall order on paper, but CF Montréal have thrived under these circumstances before as one of the league's better-performing CCL clubs. Most notably, they made the CCL final in 2015, one of just four MLS teams to do so in the modern incarnation of the competition, before falling to Club America.
"This is not easy, we know that. This is a good challenge," Nancy told reporters on his Monday video call. "This is good for us to start like this because we have two games before we start the MLS games, so this is good. And after that I have to help my team if we go far to find a good balance between these two competitions.
"We want to go as far as we can, so we'll see, but it's a good moment for the club. This is a privilege to play in this competition and we want to do well, and so does MLS, so this is good."
The winner of this opening series will face Liga MX's Cruz Azul or Canadian Premier League side Forge FC in the quarterfinal stage. Leg 2 is set for Feb. 22 back at Stade Olympique, a home rematch where the aggregate winner keeps chasing continental glory and a Club World Cup spot. It also occurs before CFM's 2022 league opener, a Feb. 27 trip to Orlando City SC.
While MLS' four other teams (Colorado, New England, NYCFC and Seattle) have perceived easier draws on paper, Montréal playmaker Djordje Mihailovic feels they have the chops to advance amid a budding league rivalry.
"That seems to be the consistent question that we see year after year when MLS teams play in this competition," said Mihailovic upon making his first foray into CCL. "I don't feel that much pressure being American on a Canadian team in this competition. It's more of an opportunity, an excitement, an anxiousness that I feel because it is a competition that is new to me and that hopefully I play in a lot of times because when that happens it means my club is doing well in our domestic season.
"So, I think when you look at the track record of MLS teams, it isn't that great. But also if you look at the quality of players coming to MLS, it's growing. So I think slowly but surely we're going to have a bigger footprint in this competition, and hopefully it starts tomorrow with us."
Perhaps in Montréal's favor, Santos Laguna are struggling in league play. Manager Pedro Caixinha's team sits bottom of the Liga MX table, allowing 13 goals in their last five matches (0W-4L-1D record). The transfer of Chilean midfielder Diego Valdés to Club America looms particularly large, while goalkeeper Carlos Acevedo has been under constant siege.
Mihailovic could stand to benefit from those vulnerabilities, coming off a 16-assist season in 2021 that saw him named team MVP. But the former Chicago Fire FC homegrown player cautioned that Santos' rough start has come within a small sample size and isn't necessarily reflective of their quality.
With that in mind, Mihailovic emphasized the importance of matching their intensity and negating any fitness advantage.
"The way that I'm preparing and the way the team is preparing is that this is the start of the season," Mihailovic said. "We have to go into the first match of the season like we're in midseason form. That's kind of the place that Santos is in, they're in their season. So we'll have to match their intensity, if not raise it over them. That's the way I'm thinking about this match and I'm sure that's the way a lot of my teammates are thinking about it as well.
"It's tough to judge a team based on [recent] form," he added. "We know that Santos is a quality team and if you look at their recent record that doesn't describe the quality of players that they have. We can't waste too much time with getting things going of those certain ideas. It's going to be intense. We have to quickly get used to that because this is a tournament, a competition that's important to the club, I know that. So the sooner we can get going in the first match, the easier it will be in the long run."