Vancouver and the Red Bulls aren’t the only MLS teams currently prepping in hopes of becoming the first MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League – Supporters’ Shield and Open Cup champs FC Dallas are also getting set for the competition, where they’ll face Panama’s Arabe Unido in the quarters.
FCD completely designed their preseason around getting their players into full match fitness in time for the first leg of their series next Thursday at Toyota Stadium. The team decided to eschew the usual MLS preseason stops in Florida and Arizona, instead kicking things off with a two-week camp in Dallas before traveling to Buenos Aires for a 10-day camp that concluded on Wednesday.
Dallas played a staggering seven matches while in Argentina, facing off against six different first-division opponents – they played River Plate twice – from the Buenos Aires area. They benefited from a TV rights dispute that’s temporarily suspended play in the Argentine Primera season, with their regulars able to play intense, high-quality matches against first-team players in nearly all their games.
The club thinks that the busy slate – which included several match days that featured two, 50-minute games, one each for FCD’s starters and reserves – will serve them well against Arabe Unido, who will have already played seven matches in their current season before next Thursday’s first leg.
“Looking back at all the CONCACAF tournaments that all the MLS teams have entered, it’s always the fitness part that has cost the most,” FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo told me from Buenos Aires on Wednesday. “It’s not the quality of the teams. It’s just that the teams that [MLS teams] play, they always were fit and into their competition compared to the MLS teams.”
Perhaps most importantly, everyone on Dallas’ roster – sans Mauro Diaz, who is still recovering from a torn Achilles suffered last October – came through the Argentina trip healthy. Defender Matt Hedges and midfielder Kellyn Acosta are both recovered from injuries that forced them to leave the US national team’s January camp early, and new Young Designated Player forward Cristian Colman is adjusting, scoring for FCD’s first-team in their 1-1 draw against Estudiantes de La Plata on Wednesday morning.
Taken together, Clavijo is confident that FCD’s fitness, form and health will give them a great shot against Arabe Unido, who are just 2-3-1 thus far in the Panamanian Clausura. The winner of the series will face the winner of the Saprissa-Pachuca quarterfinal in the CCL semis.
“We played against first-division teams – Estudiantes, Racing, San Lorenzo, River. I mean those teams – Lanus, as well – they’re quality, they’re quality teams,” Clavijo said. “And when you look at the lineups, everybody played the first-teams and it was not just a friendly, play the ball around style. It was good tackles, good play.
“It’s again more than we expected. Without a doubt, more than we expected. So are we ready? Absolutely.”
TAM making CCL road smoother for MLS teams
I know I talk about Targeted Allocation Money a lot in this space, but one of the areas it should really help MLS is in the CONCACAF Champions League.
TAM, of course, has infused a ton of new money into MLS, with each team able to spend an additional $1.7 million on players using the mechanism in 2017. It’s allowed teams like Dallas to hang onto players like Hedges, or squads like New York to go out and sign guys like Sacha Kljestan while maintaining flexibility to add more high-end players to the top of the roster.
More broadly, it’s allowed MLS clubs to really increase the quality of middle-tier starters. DPs are still the first names penciled into most manager’s starting lineups, but TAM players have upped the talent level in those fourth, fifth and sixth spots in the XI.
It’s in those spots where MLS has historically struggled against Mexican competition in the CCL. MLS and Liga MX clubs both spend a ton of money on the top-end of their rosters. Mexican clubs have historically been able to splash a lot more cash in the middle tier. Montreal’s Laurent Ciman and Ignacio Piatti could hang with Club America’s Dario Benedetto and Rubens Sambueza in the 2015 CCL final, but guys like Darwin Quintero and Michael Arroyo had quite a bit more juice than Nigel Reo-Coker or Andres Romero.
Both Anderson and Clavijo noted that TAM is starting to narrow that gap. The tournament schedule and the spending disparity between most MLS teams and Liga MX clubs will still make winning the CCL an uphill climb for any team from the US or Canada, but that mountain is starting to look a little less steep.
"It's easier because the ownership has created TAM, the league has given us more money to work with, but at the same time it’s complicated," Clavijo said. "I think that definitely we are doing a lot of things to better ourselves, but the calendar is still an issue to really [prevent us from] being even with everyone else."
How Fredy Montero landed in Vancouver
They’re paying a pretty penny for the 29-year-old Colombian, who will occupy a Designated Player spot. According to a source, the Whitecaps will pay Montero $1.77 million in 2017, though they did not have to send a loan fee to China to acquire him. According to MLS Players’ Union documents, that’s the highest salary the club have paid a player since entering MLS in 2011, eclipsing the $1.41 million paid to Pedro Morales in each of his three years with the team.
Vancouver also shipped $100,000 in General Allocation Money in 2018, $125,000 in Targeted Allocation Money in 2018 and an 2017 international roster spot to Minnesota for the No. 1 spot in the Allocation Ranking Order in order to acquire Montero.
It’s a hefty price, but the ‘Caps are betting Montero will be worth it. The Colombian has a lengthy track record of success, recording 47 goals and 34 assists in 119 regular season appearances in four years with the Sounders before scoring 27 times and notching six assists in 67 league appearances in two and a half years with Sporting CP in Portugal. He moved to China last January, tallying nine goals and three assists in 29 appearances as Tianjin finished in 10th and flirted with relegation in the Chinese Super League.
While the loan does not include an option to permanently acquire Montero, whose contract with Tianjin Teda expires at the end of 2017, ‘Caps VP of soccer operations Greg Anderson told me on Wednesday that the team will maintain his MLS rights as long as they make him an offer following the season.
Anderson played a role in bringing Montero to Vancouver, a process that he said was kicked into gear by former Whitecaps midfielder Mauro Rosales, who played with Montero in Seattle.
“Mauro did reach out to [head coach] Carl [Robinson] to say that Fredy could be potentially coming back and Mauro I guess had said some kind things to Fredy about Vancouver, so that kind of started the dialogue a bit and piqued our interest in it,” Anderson said. “That’s sort of what led us to make the call to Minnesota to acquire the Allocation Ranking spot and then we went to the league and talked to them about how we could potentially get it done.”
According to Anderson, the process of landing Montero began in earnest a few weeks ago and went relatively smoothly throughout, though he said Vancouver did have to beat out several other interested teams to land the No. 1 Allocation Ranking spot from Minnesota.
Montero trained with the team for the first time on Wednesday, but he hasn’t played a match since the 2016 CSL season ended on Oct. 30. He’ll need some time to get back into full fitness, but Anderson hinted that there’s a possibility he could play a role off the bench in Vancouver’s CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series against the Red Bulls, which will begin next Wednesday in New York.
“He’s working through with the medical guys as to what his level of readiness is, but we’re not going to rush him in,” Anderson said. “If he’s available to be on the bench for part of the CCL series, that would great, but we’re not going to rush him. We’re going to make sure that he’s ready when we put him into action.”
For now, the plan is for Vancouver to play Montero as the lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation. That’ll be a bit of a different role than the 5-foot-9 forward played in Seattle, where he often operated underneath another striker. While he’ll operate alone up top, Montero will have plenty of support in the attack, with Yordy Reyna set to operate underneath him and Kekuta Manneh, Giles Barnes, Cristian Techera, Alphonso Davies and others in the mix for minutes on the flanks.
At the No. 9, the ‘Caps feel they have other options in Erik Hurtado, Whitecaps FC 2 product Kyle Greig and the versatile Barnes, but they lack an experienced big body whose primary position is up top. Still, Anderson likes the versatility of the team’s attacking core, and Vancouver could buy down Barnes’ or fellow DP Matias Laba's contract with TAM to open up a slot, could make room for another big signing later this year. One name to keep an eye on is Canadian international Atiba Hutchinson, who the team have been linked to in the past.
“We have a number of players in the attacking positions that are all versatile, so I imagine Carl will have the ability to rotate those players through and play kind of a more fluid attacking style,” Anderson said.
“I think we’re comfortable with what we have.”
From Wilmington to the world stage... In 19 months
Nineteen months ago, Christian Bassogog was a part-time starter for the Wilmington Hammerheads.
Today, the 21-year-old Cameroonian is reportedly on the verge of a nearly $6.5 million move to China after leading his country to the Africa Cup of Nations title and picking up player of the tournament honors earlier this month.
The Washington Post’s Steve Goff wrote a nice piece last week detailing exactly how Bassogog pulled off his astonishingly rapid rise from USL obscurity to global prominence, which you can check out here. I had to know, though: Did any MLS team come calling for Bassogog before he moved to Danish club Aalborg in August 2015?
If they did, they didn’t go through then-Hammerheads GM Jason Arnold.
“Nothing came across my desk, no one reached out to me regarding that,” said Arnold, who served as Wilmington GM until the USL iteration of the club folded following the 2016 season and now works for as sporting director for Capelli Sport, who owned the Hammerheads. “You had other partners involved, so it’s possible that he had some discussions that I wasn’t aware of, but from my end, I didn’t have any discussions about him [with MLS teams.]”
Not that Arnold thinks that’s a slight on any MLS club, one of whom – New York City FC – was affiliated with Wilmington during the 2015 season. He didn’t even see Bassogog hitting these heights so quickly.
“Nah, of course not. You can never predict how a player’s going to go, what he’s going to do,” Arnold said when asked if he ever imagined Bassogog’s quick ascent in 2015. “When he came to us, he was still very raw. His final touch, his final pass still needed a lot of work and I think the role that Wilmington played for him was allowing him to adjust to the culture, working within a team, being around the resources that a professional team in USL had as opposed to trying to jump from Cameroon straight into a higher level. We were kind of that buffer zone. We really helped him in that, but he took a big step with us in those areas.”
A former player at the University of Maryland, Arnold and agent Leo Cullen – himself a former Terrapin – arranged a combine in conjunction with Cameroonian club Rainbow FC ahead of the 2015 USL season. Rainbow FC, the former club of Montreal Impact and Cameroonian international Ambroise Oyongo, invited around “50 or 60” players to the camp, held a couple of hours outside Douala, the country’s largest city. Bassogog and another player, Brian Anunga, grabbed Arnold’s attention, and he signed both for Wilmington.
Then 19, Bassogog moved to the States and played somewhat sparingly for the Hammerheads, who finished dead-last in USL in 2015. He recorded 16 league appearances for the club, starting seven times and tallying zero goals and two assists. His talent was clear, Arnold said, but he was still rough around the edges.
Arnold, who spent four years playing in the academy of Danish club VFF and still texts with Bassogog, and a Spanish agent arranged a trial for Bassogog at Aalborg in the summer of 2015. He impressed enough over his two-week stint to earn a contract, with Capelli Sport and Rainbow FC both retaining a sell-on percentage for future transfers as part of the deal. He played sparingly in his first season with the club before excelling this year to work himself into the national team picture.
Now, less than two years since he was playing in USL’s smallest market, he’s a rising name on the global soccer scene and a long, long way from Wilmington.
“It happened so fast, it’s all kind of crazy,” Arnold said. “I’m sure there are going to be many offers for him. He’s a great player that’s kind of just burst onto the scene – not too long ago, not too many people knew who he was. But now I think he’s really done all the hard work and he’s put himself in a great position to have some great opportunities for his career.”