Castillo: MLS preseason takes on new meaning due to revamped CCL schedule

MIAMI — Monday night’s Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League draw at Univision’s headquarters proceeded as a much more staid affair than the Univision Deportes awards show in the same space on Sunday night.

But if the concise ceremony lacked in tubas and pyrotechnics, the resulting matchups at least served up some intriguing possibilities for the five MLS teams in the 2018 edition of the tournament. (They’re Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders, New York Red Bulls, Colorado Rapids, and FC Dallas, and you can look at their matchups here.)

If you need a recap of the, err ... involved ways in which teams qualified and the actual draw proceeded, go here for a refresher.

In a nutshell, though, here’s what proved most salient – the tournament changed formats for 2018. The group stage is history, making CCL now a 16-team, two-legged knockout round competition. The number of matches has been more than halved, meaning the competition gets meaningful from the get-go – and, oh yeah, the Round of 16 kicks off in February.

This means MLS sides are going to have to get their offseason together ASAP, especially for teams who qualified, but didn’t make deep postseason runs in MLS.

Perhaps the most intriguing Round of 16 matchup sees two MLS teams squaring off: league champs Toronto FC and the Colorado Rapids. All of this is great news for fans who were counting the days until the regular-season openers for a meaningful match. Now, even January fitness sessions have taken on a new dimension with actual stakes.

The Round of 16 draw proved pretty kind to MLS sides – save, of course, for the two who will immediately face each other. But this also means that with the rest of the bracket shaking out as it did, the tournament should heat up pretty quickly, with fierce competition from Liga MX teams looming on the horizon.

MLS head coaches and team staff on hand expressed tentative relief to at least know their upcoming foes, and to up their preseason stakes accordingly.

“We were definitely in favor of this kind of adjustment," TFC head coach Greg Vanney said. "It gives us the opportunity that, after you qualify, you can almost take the same team into the tournament and try to win it. Before, for us MLS clubs, it was like a three-year process to try to win. [Now] games are meaningful right off the bat.”

And no, Toronto aren’t expecting a cakewalk against Colorado, either.

“Playing in Colorado is never an easy thing. They have a new coach and they’re going through some changes, so there will be some things we’re not really familiar with,” Vanney said of their first CCL opponents. “I can’t tell you that we have any confidence yet, because we haven’t even started any preseason or done anything. I can tell you that we are very much looking forward to being a part of this competition. It is our next mission in our line of missions that we’ve been able to achieve.”

If anything, the Rapids’ new head coach, Anthony Hudson seems to be chomping at the bit at the challenge – and the opportunity to show off an almost completely rebuilt squad.

“When you start a job and in you’re in a Round of 16 tournament straight away, you want to win,” he said. “I think the pressure comes internally from what we put on ourselves.”

Some also hinted that, as they try to speed up their 2017 preparations, another potential wildcard is their still-unfinished offseason roster-building.

Grant Clark, the Sounders’ director of team administration, says some potential new signees could play key roles, already, in the team’s CCL campaign.

“It depends on the players, who they are, what countries they come from,” he said. “Some of them may have some experience with Champions League, and that always helps us – that they can assimilate quickly.”

Hudson, meanwhile, also promised good news soon for Rapids fans.

“There are going to be plenty of good signings coming,” he said. “We’re all as eager as anyone to get names out. It’s happening; I’m telling you it’s happening.”

Meanwhile, FC Dallas’ technical director, Fernando Clavijo, got even more specific as to the number of potential new arrivals that could help rebuild after a disappointing 2017.

“It’s a cycle of players that you need to change a little bit, not to be comfortable. We achieved a lot of things in 2016, and it’s time for us in 2018 to start getting back into wins,” he said.

To get there, he said, the team might soon announce four or five new players.

“Right now it’s all complicated, the transfers, all over the world, so you have to be very careful, and sure you make the right ones. I’m excited for the names that we have,” he said. “I concentrate more on players and not necessarily on TAM. So I want to make sure that I don’t care how much; I just care about the quality of the players more than anything else.”

Hear that? That’s the rustling of fingers taking to social media and forums around the MLS internet. Thanks, CCL, for making January and February matter extra this year.

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