We're back, and the stakes are higher.
The CONCACAF Champions League semifinals kick off on Tuesday evening, with the tantalizing possibility of a historic all-MLS final should both the Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy overcome immense tests from Santos Laguna and Monterrey, respectively.
What makes the CCL so special, you ask?
For one, it is North America's version of the prestigious UEFA Champions League, and just like the Champions League across the Atlantic, it allows the best teams from each country to test their mettle against the best from across North America. And in the CCL, that means Mexican teams.
The CCL and its predecessor, the CONCACAF Champions' Cup, have been dominated by teams from Mexico, who have won 11 out of 15 available titles since MLS teams first participated in 1997. They've won 28 total titles overall, going back to the 1960s, compared to 21 won by teams from eight other North American countries.
And even when two MLS teams – D.C. United in 1998 and the LA Galaxy in 2000 – did win the Champions' Cup, the competition looked nothing like it does today. As opposed to the season-long format that's held up since 2008, "back in the day," all games were played within the space of a week at the MLS team's home venue. In 1998 and 2000, teams only had to play three games to win the tournament. Now, teams must play 10, half of them in intimidating venues so often found in Mexico and Central America, or on the bumpy cricket fields of the Caribbean.
Despite all that, two MLS teams are just four games away from booking a first-ever trip by a US or Canadian club to December's FIFA Club World Cup. An appearance there would afford an MLS team the possibility of going up against the European or South American champion, not to mention the top teams from Asia, Africa and Oceania.
In addition to a Club World Cup berth, a CCL would afford MLS greater visibility and an enhanced reputation on the world stage. Win your continent, and you win respect. Thus, it's no surprise that MLS success in the CCL is high on Commissioner Don Garber's list of what needs to happen to help MLS reach his stated goal of being one of the top leagues in the world by 2022.
First, though, they must overcome the two finalists from last year, both of whom have made handy work of dropping MLS teams from CCL play.
Seattle go up against Herculez Gomez and Santos Laguna, a side coached by the brainy Portuguese manager Pedro Caixinha, and one that has eliminated the past three MLS teams it has faced in the CCL knockouts by a combined score of 17-7. (Seattle and Toronto in 2012, Houston in 2013.)
On the other side of the bracket are the LA Galaxy and Monterrey, who dashed MLS dreams by edging out Real Salt Lake in the final of the 2010-11 edition. Los Rayados, as the side from Mexico's third-biggest city are known, are two-time defending champions who boast an immensely-talented squad that contains a number of Mexican national team players and is led by perhaps the most fearsome strike duo in CONCACAF – Chilean veteran Humberto Suazo and Mexican international Aldo de Nigris.
It will be far from easy for the Galaxy and Sounders to give MLS the signature win the league craves this time around, but recent history indicates momentum is shifting more and more towards MLS – too slowly for some, to be sure, but nothing worth doing is ever easy.
To catch the action, you can check out the TV listing right here.