The draw is done, and we know the field for the 2019 Concacaf Champions League.
With five MLS teams in the upcoming tournament, which kicks off on Feb. 19, what does the road look like for the five Round of 16 matchups involving MLS teams?
Toronto FC vs. Independiente
The 2018 Canadian Championship winners, Toronto FC are back in the CCL for the 6th time, and the second year in a row. TFC's 2018 CCL ended in heartbreak, as their quest to become the first MLS team to lift the title came agonizingly short, losing in a penalty shootout in the final to Chivas de Guadalajara.
With plenty of experience on their side, and a full offseason to recharge their batteries after a very busy 2016 and 2017, TFC will aim to pick up right back up in CCL, as they face Panama's Independiente, who qualify for the CCL by virtue of being the Panamanian domestic champion with the best aggregate record for 2017-18. This is Independiente's first trip to the CCL, so it will also be Toronto's first time squaring off against the La Chorrera outfit.
For Toronto, the objective is obvious: Finish the job and become the first MLS team to win the Champions League.
The winner of this Round of 16 series will face the winner of the Sporting KC-Toluca FC series. Speaking of which...
Sporting Kansas City vs. Toluca FC
The 2017 U.S. Open Cup winner is back in the CCL, and they have the hardest Round of 16 clash among the MLS teams, being the only side to draw Liga MX opposition in Toluca, the 2018 Clausura runner-up. These teams have never previously met in competitive action.
This is both teams' fourth appearance in the CCL, with Sporting's last trip coming in 2016, when they crashed out in the group stage. Fortunately for them, the group stage has been eliminated, and they will look to better their best previous showing in the revamped format, a quarterfinal berth in 2013-14.
Toluca are returning for the first time since 2013-14, when they were finalists that year, losing the title to fellow Liga MX side Cruz Azul. In some ways these teams have a similar profile: Both teams have made a name for themselves as underdogs, albeit successful and consistent underdogs. Neither Sporting or Toluca are likely to be favored to wave the flag in CCL for their respective leagues, but it wouldn't be surprising to see either make a deep run, perhaps all the way to the final. But first, one of these teams needs to prevail to keep their title hopes alive into the quarterfinals.
Houston Dynamo vs. Guastatoya
The 2018 U.S. Open Cup winners, Houston come back to the CCL for the fifth time, their last trip being in 2013-14. Their best placement came a year before that, when they reached the quarterfinals. They face Guastatoya, a Champions League debutant from Guatemala, which won their country's CCL playoff to qualify for the first time. Founded in 2010, this is the first time Guastatoya will face any MLS team.
Houston are coming off a tricky 2018 season, where they did lift silverware for the first time since 2007 with their Open Cup triumph, but they also finished well out of the running for the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs. With Wilmer Cabrera remaining in the helm as manager, a promising core of players, and the expectation of reinforcements at other areas, this will be the Dynamo's first chance to show their new look for the 2019 season. And not to overlook Guastatoya, but Houston got a good draw to open the CCL. If they advance, they would take on the winner of the Saprissa-Tigres series, a battle of heavyweights that will represent a huge challenge in the quarterfinals. But Cabrera has shown he can find success in tournament-style situations with the Dynamo, and perhaps they'll make a run to kick off 2019?
Atlanta United vs. Herediano
In a considerably different position are Atlanta United, who will square off against Costa Rica's Herediano. The Tico outfit won the 2018 Concacaf League, a tournament instituted in 2017 to give teams from smaller countries a chance to play competitive games and reach the CCL. In this case, Atlanta are debutants to CCL, as they'll play in the competition for the first time in their third season, while Herediano are mainstays at this point, playing in their 9th edition. This will be the first meeting between the teams.
The Five Stripes will enter CCL with a new-look side. Gone is MLS Cup-winning head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino, and in has stepped Dutch manager Frank de Boer. Don't be surprised if some key figures from the 2018 season depart in the offseason as well. One expects much of the current squad to return for 2019, but some of the architects for the team's excellent play may be out by the time the Champions League kicks off in February.
For these reasons, it's hard to gauge how Atlanta United will approach it. With a new coach, they may aim for ambition out of the gate, continuing a trend implemented from the inaugural season for the club. Or they may find the occasion difficult to pick up on the fly, with trips abroad and the vicissitudes of Concacaf requiring more time to adjust. Atlanta United keep raising the bar, and they have every chance to advance against Herediano and meet the winner of the Alianza-Monterrey series. But as the MLS newcomer, they may be taken aback at the special conditions of CCL. Time will tell.
New York Red Bulls vs. Atletico Pantoja
The New York Red Bulls qualified by virtue of being the MLS team not to win MLS Cup or the U.S. Open Cup with the best aggregate regular-season points record in 2017 and 2018, after Atlanta won MLS Cup. They are coming back for their fifth appearance in the CCL, taking on Caribbean Club Championship winner Atletico Pantoja out of the Dominican Republic.
The Red Bulls are coming off their best performance in the competition last year, when they went to the semifinals before falling to eventual champs Chivas. New York haven't had an especially distinguished history in the competition, but they seemed to turn a corner last year, although young star Tyler Adams has left for RB Leipzig and will no longer be a key man in CCL play.
While we all know how young MLS is, Atletico Pantoja are newcomers themselves, having been founded in 2000 and playing in the Dominican first tier, which admittedly isn't a traditional soccer powerhouse. However, they are the second consecutive Dominican team to win the Caribbean Club Championship, matching the accomplishment of Cibao in 2017, who were Chivas' first victim on their way to the CCL title. This is Pantoja's first entry into the Champions League.
Given the lack of regular information available about Caribbean soccer at club level, Pantoja will look to spring the element of surprise and upset the Red Bulls, but New York will be heavy favorites coming into this series. If RBNY advance, they'll take on the winner of the Santos Laguna-Marathon tie in the quarterfinal round.