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Which MLS team has the toughest CCL group? Analyzing Monday's draw

Major League Soccer’s quest for its first CONCACAF Champions League crown resumed on Monday night, when FC Dallas, New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City and Vancouver Whitecaps learned their groups for the upcoming competition at the official draw in Miami.

On the whole, the draw was a bit of a mixed bag for the league. Two clubs were put in relatively easy groups, another two were paired together and the fifth MLS team in the competition was squared with one of the region’s most successful clubs.

Which MLS team got the toughest draw? Who has the easiest path to a group title and the quarterfinal berth that comes with it?

To the rankings…

The favorites

New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas

The top two teams from the 2015 regular season, the Red Bulls and Dallas were handed the most straightforward groups of MLS’s CCL contingent.

New York was slotted into Group F with Guatemala’s Antigua FC and El Salvador’s Alianza FC. This will be the first CCL appearance for Antigua and just the second time in the tournament for Alianza, who lost to FC Dallas in the preliminary round of the 2011-12 competition.

Alianza won the Salvadoran Primera Apertura 2015 title, but finished fourth in the regular season of the current Clausura campaign and were bounced in the semifinals of the playoffs. Similarly, Antigua won Guatemala’s 2015 Apertura title, but struggled a bit in the current Clausura campaign, finishing fifth in the regular season before being bounced in the first round of the playoffs.

Dallas were drawn into Group H with Guatemalan club CD Suchitepequez and Nicaraguan side Real Esteli FC. Suchitepequez will enter the tournament on the back of their first-place regular season finish in the 2016 Clausura and the most combined points in the 2015-16 campaign. A CCL regular, Esteli finished first in the regular season of the Nicaraguan Primera’s 2015 Apertura and 2016 Clausura, and recently defeated Walter Ferretti in the finals of the Clausura campaign.

While all four clubs have had recent success in their domestic leagues, they shouldn’t provide too much resistance to Dallas or the Red Bulls. Both MLS sides have far more talent than their Central American counterparts, and will be firm favorites to win their groups and advance to the CCL quarters.

It won’t be easy, but…

Portland Timbers

The Timbers got a bit of a tricky draw, as they were placed into Group B with Dragon FC of El Salvador and Costa Rican giants Saprissa. Dragon have a wonderful name, but they’re the clear underdogs in this group, which will come down to Portland and La S.

Saprissa are no strangers to the competition, having appeared in the tournament on five previous occasions and advanced to the knockout rounds twice. The San Jose club, who have one of the most intimidating home stadiums in CONCACAF, beat out Sporting Kansas City to win their group their last time in the competition, finishing just ahead of SKC to advance to the quarterfinals of the 2014-15 tournament.

La S will test Portland, who don’t have the greatest CCL history, but the Timbers are the better team on paper. If Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe and Fanendo Adi show up and the backline holds it together, they should win the group and advance to the quarters.

The unlucky ones

Sporting Kansas City and Vancouver Whitecaps

With all due respect to Trinidad’s Central FC, Group C is going to come down to SKC and Vancouver.

It’s a bit of bad luck déjà vu for the Whitecaps, who were drawn in the same group as the Seattle Sounders in last year’s competition. Vancouver couldn’t best their Cascadia rivals for the group title last year, and they’ll be hoping for a reversal of fortune this time around.

This is Sporting’s third time in the CCL. They failed to make it out of the group their last time in the competition, finishing even with Saprissa on seven points but losing out to the Costa Rican giants on the head-to-head away goals scored tiebreaker.

For my money, Sporting and the ‘Caps were handed the worst draw of any of the MLS CCL participants. One should advance, but it’ll come at the cost of the other.