This week preseason opened for most of MLS, usually a period of introductions, acclimation and knocking the proverbial rust off minds and bodies.
Don’t be fooled, though. For the five sides competing in this year’s Concacaf Champions League, it’s more of an alarm bell.
That’s because Atlanta United, the Houston Dynamo, New York Red Bulls, Sporting KC and Toronto FC – who all began workouts last week – now have less than a month, and counting, until they wade into their CCL campaigns with a slate of tricky round-of-16 first leg matches, nearly two weeks before the regular season kicks off.
Like other confident, ambitious MLS Cup champions, Atlanta see winning the Champions League as the logical next step in their pursuit of greatness. But as many impressive things as they’ve achieved in their brief existence, this might be their toughest task yet.
A challenge like no other
After the league’s shortest offseason, the Five Stripes are now embarking on what they hope will be 10 straight months of trophy-hunting, and the toughest assignment comes first.
“It’s hard. It’s very hard. Mentally, it’s draining. It’s a lot of travel. You go play away at different places, it adds to the travel in the season,” Atlanta technical director Carlos Bocanegra told MLSsoccer.com in a discussion about the CCL experience last month. “So mentally, the guys have to be strong.
“You talk about a year-round season – this is a real year-round season, because you play all the way to the final, you get short rest, and you come back and you have an extra competition. So this is where the mental factor comes in for these players.”
Even with the format change that makes the 2019 season a month shorter than previous ones, MLS remains a marathon, a grind across an entire continent’s myriad climates and conditions. And for those chasing CCL dreams, that endurance contest, paradoxically, begins with a sprint.
If you're wondering, if Atlanta United makes the quarterfinals of CCL, they will play at DC, CCL, Cincinnati, CCL and Philadelphia in a span of 15 days.— Mike Conti (@MikeConti929) January 7, 2019
If they make the semifinals, they will play at Columbus, CCL, CCL and at New England in a span of 14 days.
With most of Concacaf’s other nations already well into their seasons, MLS’s Champions League participants must ramp up to game readiness faster, match the quality and intensity of the region’s top clubs in do-or-die showdowns in far-flung locales, then somehow shift back into league action without a crippling CCL hangover.
That’s a steep task. And as close as TFC got last year, no MLS team has quite figured it all out yet.
In fact, Toronto’s 2018 poses a cautionary tale for Atlanta, a case study on the lurking dangers of competing on multiple fronts. The Reds beat two of Liga MX’s biggest clubs, Tigres and Club America, before falling to Chivas Guadalajara on a penalty-kick shootout in the tournament final – then, wracked by injuries, dipped into a tailspin in league play that they never escaped.
“We put a lot into Champions League,” TFC head coach Greg Vanney said during a 2-6 slump that crushed his team’s flickering hopes last fall. “Physically, it took a toll on us, and we’ve been trying to recover ever since. Part of that, and the challenge of this league, is that you get on the wrong side of momentum, and have a lot of guys in and out and you can’t become consistent, and get on at least some runs through the course of the year, then the league is very punishing.”
Stop, go, sprint, jog
After dominating the league in their 2017 treble triumph, Toronto would finish ninth in the Eastern Conference last year. Now, just like Atlanta, they’re seeking the perfect preseason-to-CCL recipe, tweaking their fitness regimen and squad rotations with a long season in mind.
“We saw what happened with Toronto, unfortunately,” said Bocanegra. “They’re a great team and it came back to bite them with injuries, and they couldn’t catch back up. I mean, they kicked our butt at the end of the season [a 4-1 Decision Day whipping at BMO Field that denied Atlanta the Supporters' Shield]. They’re a very good team. So that’s in the back of our mind as a staff.
“We’ve got to make sure we have depth and competition at each spot, [so] that we can compete in Concacaf and compete in the regular season. If we make a good run in it – which we’d like to – we want to still be able to be competitive in the league, also.”
Can ATLUTD reach the heights, and sustain the balance, that eluded others? They have best-in-class facilities and performance technology, a diverse, ferociously talented roster and well-established culture of success. Conversely, their task is complicated by their newness to international competition (TFC have been CCL regulars for years) and the arrival of a new head coach – and MLS newcomer – in Frank de Boer.
Which brings us to one more paradox: Before the Five Stripes set out to achieve all the great things they have in mind for this year, they directed their championship-winning side to do a whole lot of nothing.
“They’ve got to have a really good offseason of getting away from soccer, and taking it easy,” noted Bocanegra last month, mindful of the cumulative exhaustion that crippled Toronto. “It’s important!
“We think we have a very good group of veterans on the squad, our young guys now have a couple of years in the league, so they’re understanding,” he added. “Physically, and as far as players-wise, we feel very happy. The mental challenge this year is going to be our biggest one.”
So just what can Atlanta achieve in CCL? We’ll start to find out when they visit Costa Rica’s Herediano on Feb. 21.