Voices: Andrew Wiebe

Wiebe: How the 2019 Concacaf Champions League is shaping up for MLS

New Concacaf Champions League trophy - 2018 - Estadio Akron - Guadalajara

You know you’ve got #CCLFever when … your first instinct when the Tata Martino news goes public is to wonder how it will affect Atlanta United in the Concacaf Champions League next year.

In my defense, there’s only five months left until the next outbreak. Prepare your loved ones while there’s still time. Come late February, your fever will be full blown. Late nights tossing and turning. Symptoms (and on-field results) bordering on the absurd. So bad, in fact, you might find yourself commiserating with complete strangers and anonymous avatars on Twitter.                                                                                                                   

The bad news is that #CCLFever is highly contagious, and there is no known cure once you’ve contracted the virus. The good news is MLS gets closer to being able to treat the symptoms and perhaps even find a temporary cure every single year.

Thanks to Atlanta United’s consistent excellence over 2017 and 2018 regular seasons and the Houston Dynamo’s dominating performance in the U.S. Open Cup final, we now know with absolute certainty four of the five MLS clubs that will compete in the 2019 Concacaf Champions League. The pair join Sporting Kansas City and Toronto FC in the competition, and only one other unoccupied berth remains outside MLS. It will go to the winner of the 2018 Concacaf League, a clash between two Central American giants in CS Herediano and Motagua.

  • 2017 U.S. Open Cup: Sporting KC
  • 2018 Canadian Championship: Toronto FC
  • 2018 U.S. Open Cup: Houston Dynamo
  • 2017-2018 Best Regular Season Aggregate Record: Atlanta United
  • 2018 MLS Cup: ??? (If SKC, Atlanta or the Montreal Impact win MLS Cup, the New York Red Bulls will claim the last spot)

As Toronto FC proved, a deep CCL run doesn’t begin in preseason. It’s a multi-year project, and not every team is cut out for the rigmarole it requires. From the timing to the travel to the playing conditions to the level of competition to fickle lady luck, MLS clubs have proven time and again that they’re not quite ready to get over the hump.

But hey, why not next year? Time to start dreaming, with a little context. Four MLS teams will be in Pot 1 (avoiding Liga MX in the opening round) and one will end up in Pot 2 (think Colorado Rapids in 2018). Everybody’s got a chance, some have a better chance than others.

Here are some things to like (and some not to like) looking way ahead to the Round of 16.

Atlanta United

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Josef Martinez will likely be a key figure for Atlanta in their CCL run next year | USA Today Sports

How they qualified: 2017, 2018 aggregate record in MLS regular season

What’s to like…

Atlanta United are, in all likelihood, going to set the single-season points record in Major League Soccer. If they do, they’ll also win the Supporters’ Shield. After that, it’s all about MLS Cup, which is well within their capabilities. Forty words boiled down to five: Atlanta United are very good.

The team Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra, Paul McDonough and Tata Martino built is loaded with front-end talent and quality depth. They’re ambitious and willing to splash cash. They want to break the mold in MLS, and winning CCL would send them to the Club World Cup. They’re going to take the competition seriously and no expense will be spared.

The Five Stripes are just as talented as Toronto FC were this year, plus their stars are younger. Josef Martinez may be slumping now, but you better believe his eyes will light up at the prospect of playing against Liga MX competition (and in front of Mexican scouts). The Venezuelan scores in bunches, and scoring in bunches can win a two-legged series in a matter of minutes.

Ezequiel Barco may not have played a huge role this season, but he’s got the talent and the chops to take the logical next step in his career in 2019. The kid – and he’s still a kid at 19 – played a starring role as Independiente captured the Copa Sudamericana against Flamengo at the Maracana. Mexico can be intimidating, but Barco’s not going to be wide-eyed.

Speaking of intimidation, Mercedes-Benz Stadium won’t be a cakewalk for any visiting team. Neither is defending Julian Gressel’s crosses, knocking Darlington Nagbe off the ball, slowing down Hector Villalba in the open field, cutting out Leandro Gonzalez Pirez’s line-splitting passes or pulling Jeff Larentowicz or Michael Parkhurst out of position.

What’s not to like…

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Miguel Almrion and Josef may not have the opportunity to link up in 2019 | USA Today Sports

You obviously noticed I didn’t mention Miguel Almiron in that last section. We all know why. Along with Martino, who announced Tuesday that he will not return for 2019, the Paraguayan is almost certainly gone. That’s a double-whammy of uncertainty, one that would sink the CCL chances of just about every other team in the league.

Atlanta United are not like other teams.

Almiron’s replacement, if you believe the avalanche of reports out of Argentina, will be River Plate’s 25-year-old star Pity Martinez, who is currently in the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores and pushing his way into the Argentine national team. Martinez has played more than 40 games in Copa Lib, won the whole thing in 2015 and will reportedly cost over $17 million. He knows pressure, and he knows suffocating conditions and environments. Been there, done that.

I like all that, but it’s still asking an awful lot for Pity to be ready to be an Almiron-esque gamechanger within weeks of arriving in a new country at a new club. Same goes for the next head coach. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, if that’s the choice, has the MLS and Copa Lib experience going for him – Boca Juniors are currently in the semis, too – but he, or whoever gets the job, won’t get a full preseason to implement his ideas.

So what’s not to like? Mostly the yet unknown effects that fundamental change and the timing of the tournament will have on the club. Losing Almiron and Martino (and perhaps Gressel, depending on German interest) could be a big deal. It could be all good, those losses replaced and perhaps even upgraded in the winter.

No matter what happens, Atlanta United will be expected to lead the MLS charge to make history.

Sporting Kansas City

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SKC earned their spot by winning the U.S. Open Cup last year | USA Today Sports Images

How they qualified: 2017 U.S. Open Cup Champions

What’s to like…

This isn’t their first Concacaf rodeo, and Sporting’s long-standing core has something to prove.

Peter Vermes took his team south to play in the Champions League in three of the past five years, so they’ve been there before. Disappointingly, given their league form, Kansas City reached the Knockout Round just once, in 2013-14 when Cruz Azul, down 1-0 after an away defeat, laid a 5-1 smack down on Sporting in the return leg at Estadio Azul in Mexico City.

Kansas City re-signed Tim Melia, Ike Opara, Daniel Salloi, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza and Ilie Sanchez (not to mention Vermes) in the last calendar year for a reason. They clearly believe this in-their-prime core group can compete for another MLS Cup or two, but making history has also been on their mind for a long time now.

“[Co-owner] Robb Heineman came up to me right on the field after the game and said ‘Let’s go and win Champions League now,’” Vermes said after winning MLS Cup in 2013.

And so, five years later, they’ve got the quality, depth and experience to win it. The backline is still among the best in MLS, and now the attack is in the same echelon, too. Vermes won’t need to remake the team in the offseason, more on that in a second, and they’ll have seven straight years of playoff experience, three U.S. Open Cup triumphs and some CCL learning experiences to draw upon.

What’s not to like…

The last two MLS teams to reach the final (Toronto FC and Montreal Impact) had “You can’t stop me, you can only hope to contain me” attackers. I’m talking Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Nacho Piatti and Cameron Porter. Just kidding on that last one. The Red Bulls had Bradley Wright-Phillips as they fell just short last year.

Does Sporting KC have that sort of player? On some days, yes. On others, TBD. Five players have more than five goals in the league this season, but none has more than Salloi and Johnny Russell, who each have 10. The attack produces plenty, via rotating hot hands and unselfish team play, but will that be enough against the best Mexico can offer – in 2019, Tigres, Santos Laguna, Monterrey and Toluca – over two legs? Maybe, but probably not given MLS’s zero-title history in this thing.

That brings us back to the long-time search for a No. 9 to tie it all together. It’s not required necessarily – the Khiry Shelton-Diego Rubio platoon is pretty darn effective, and perhaps Krisztian Nemeth has some moments of magic in him – but a player who combines Shelton’s dogged hold-up play and defensive responsibilities with Rubio’s opportunistic goalscoring sure would up the odds of success. That’d be a seven-figure needle in the ever-changing haystack that is the international transfer market, of course.

The other possible flag is father time. Besler, Zusi, Espinoza, Nemeth, Opara and Seth Sinovic will all be over the age of 30 when the tournament starts in February. They’re all still chugging along, but you never know when injuries or a lost step might disrupt your well-laid plans. There’s no room for error if you want to finish as the last team standing in a tournament that’s never seen an MLS winner.

Toronto FC

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TFC earned their spot by winning the Canadian Championship this year | USA Today Sports Images

How they qualified: 2018 Canadian Championship

What’s to like…

There is one empty trophy case at the BMO Training Ground. All the players, all the coaches, every member of the staff sees it every day. There’s no better way to prove 2018 was a fluke than to go out and win the previously unwinnable.

They were a couple missed penalty kicks away from making history in April, so why can’t they get over the hump a year later? No team has more institutional knowledge about the competition or better understands what it takes to beat Liga MX powers in a home-and-home series.

Given a long offseason to heal up and rest from three years of seemingly nonstop, high-stakes games, must-have players such Altidore, Chris Mavinga and Victor Vazquez ought to be fresh, mentally and physically, for another run … and with a ton to prove after repeated gut punches during this calendar year. Tim Bezbatchenko can reload and shake up the squad in January, too.

And they have Giovinco. The Italian may not be the unquestioned best player in MLS anymore, but he can still turn a game on its head in a split second and seemed especially motivated against the likes of Tigres and Club América. If the Atomic Ant is on, Altidore is somewhere between 80 and 100 percent and the rest of the squad is fit, then Toronto FC can absolutely win this thing.

What’s not to like…

Too many “ifs” equal failure, as we found out this season. Betting on 2017 and early 2018 Toronto FC to return is a risky proposition.

They’ll be better in 2019 than they’ve shown this season, of that I feel certain, but will that be enough to challenge for or win CCL? Ehhhhh, doubtful. Do they want to sink the same resources into making a run when said run was a contributing factor to the poor form that saw them miss the playoffs entirely? Maybe. Maybe not.

Being ready for a taxing continental competition in February when preseason starts in January is not easy, as TFC know. There probably won’t be a low-pressure warmup series against the Rapids – remember that Anthony Hudson preseason quote? – this time around. Greg Vanney has to have his group ready to hit the ground running in preseason and immediately rediscover the form that saw them knock off Tigres in the quarterfinals.

There’s also uncertainty at the top end of the roster. Giovinco is coming into the last year of his contract and hasn’t shied away from the fact that he’s not happy there’s no extension in place. Altidore is in the same boat as Seba, and had some cryptic things to say about his future after his last appearance before undergoing ankle surgery. Michael Bradley was the lynchpin of it all, but his May to October wasn’t what we’ve become accustomed to from the US stalwart.

Outside of Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado, the complementary pieces that were so crucial to Toronto FC’s rise from the basement to treble winners came back down to earth. Plus, everyone is a year older, and the vibes just seem a little off. They could do it, but something feels off.

Houston Dynamo

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Houston earned their spot by winning the U.S. Open Cup this year | USA Today Sports Images

How they qualified: 2018 U.S. Open Cup

What’s to like…

The Dynamo are young and brash, have a ton of Concacaf experience and a counterattacking style that could work well against Liga MX sides who want the ball. They’ve got some knockout/playoff experience via a run to the 2017 Western Conference Championship and Open Cup.

Mauro Manotas is an emerging star. Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto have days in which they look near unstoppable. Juan David Cabezas is the MLS defensive midfielder you don’t know much about but is absolutely capable of dominating a game when healthy. Wilmer Cabrera proved in 2017 that he can get more out of his team than most reasonable observers might expect.

They’ll be overlooked and counted out, but the underdog role suits the Dynamo well.

What’s not to like…

Can they hold on to their stars? In particular, the four guys I mentioned above. Lose even one, and their ceiling drops significantly.

Can they reinforce in the offseason? They’ll be the least fancied of the five qualified MLS teams, no matter who wins MLS Cup. If they want to make a run, they’ll need to invest in depth and quality across the board. The backline would be a good place to start. Given the Dynamo aren’t likely to spend at the levels of others on this list, that’ll also mean smart business within the league (trades, free agency, various dispersal drafts) and in the SuperDraft.

Will DaMarcus Beasley retire or move on? Run DMB still has plenty of quality, and he knows Mexico and Liga MX like the back of his hand. Does he have the legs and the desire to keep playing? We’ll see.

No matter what happens, Houston won’t be a sexy pick. But hey, neither were the Montreal Impact, and they nearly made history.