Warshaw: Handicapping MLS teams' prospects in Concacaf Champions League

It’s a race. It’ll happen at some point, probably soon. One team will be the first from MLS to win the Concacaf Champions League. Everyone’s just trying to make sure it’s them.

Whoever wins will get etched into the history books. Kings. Champions forever.

Five teams – Atlanta United, the Houston Dynamo, New York Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas City and Toronto FC – will make a run at CCL this year. Each team has a shot at taking home the trophy, but who’s got the best odds?

I’ve included two factors in the rankings: skill and luck. The strength of the squad, the tactics, and the preparation matter, but so does the draw. You have to beat the best to be the best, but sometimes it helps if others beat the best for you (look at England’s run in the 2018 World Cup). Nobody remembers who you beat along the way, they just remember who was standing at the end.

As a general premise, Liga MX giants Monterrey and Tigres UANL enter the tournament as the favorites. They aren’t unbeatable, as Toronto showed last year, but they are the toughest opponents.

On to the rankings, and sorting through which MLS team has the best chance to win the whole dang thing...

Atlanta

  • Path: Third-easiest/third-hardest
  • Squad: Best

What are the key factors in Champions League games? For one, you need a starting XI that can hang with Liga MX teams. Check.

You need elite stars – think Ignacio Piatti, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore – to make game-changing plays. Check.

And you need edge, the ability to find (and the willingness to do) the smallest margins to get a result. Check.

The downside? They will likely play the current leader of Liga MX, Monterrey, in the quarterfinals. If they overcome that hurdle, it would be Toronto, Sporting KC, or Toluca in the semis.

RBNY

  • Path: Second-hardest
  • Squad: Second-best

I’ve gone back and forth on my evaluation, and it’s for this reason: I get caught up on the fact that the Red Bulls seem like they do not have top-end talent, because I forget that the top-end talent is in their defense. The Red Bulls do have stars, but in different ways than most MLS teams.

I’d like the team to have another winger who can create scoring opportunities, and I get distracted from the fact that they have four defenders who can dominate a game. Plus, their general strategy is to create chances via their defending anyway. And that strategy is not something that Liga MX teams see very often, so it provides an extra advantage.

They didn’t get any favors in their CCL draw, but it’s not a disaster, either. Santos Laguna, their likely quarterfinal opponents, currently sit in sixth place in Liga MX. Then it would be a semifinal matchup with Tigres, Houston or Saprissa.

Houston

  • Path: Hardest
  • Squad: Third-best

People have been sleeping on Houston’s chances, as one would expect given that they missed the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in 2018. But here’s something to remember: Houston might have three of the six most talented attackers on an MLS team in the tournament (along with Pity Martinez, Josef Martinez and Altidore).

Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto and Mauro Manotas give Houston a chance against anyone in the region. Throughout a full MLS season, they tend to lose focus and go through ups and downs. But if they are firing, they are unstoppable. And I like the odds of them being on for a huge playoff-style game against elite competition.

It’s not ideal that they could face Mexican powerhouse Tigres, but everyone will likely have to face Tigres or Monterrey at some point, and I’d rather face them early than late. Tigres have been known to take their foot off the pedal at times. I doubt they’d do it in the semis or final, but a quarterfinal against a “non-playoff team”...

Sporting KC

  • Path: Second-easiest
  • Squad: Fourth-best

It’d be somewhat poetic for Sporting, who have quietly set the bar for the standard of consistency in MLS, to summit the mountaintop first. Peter Vermes has built a deep, sophisticated machine. I would rank Sporting higher if not for this one fact: They were really bad at defending in a low block last year.

They gave up a weirdly high number of goals once they had their set shape behind the ball. It doesn’t doom SKC in MLS, because they tend to dominate the ball and don’t get pushed back too often. But they will almost certainly be forced to defend deep for significant stretches at some point in the tournament. I don’t feel great about them finding a way to survive to give themselves a chance to counterpunch in those moments. If they have fixed that problem this year, though, there’s no reason they can’t make a run.

SKC have the first-round matchup to watch. They are the only MLS team to take on a Liga MX team, but they are getting Toluca at the right time. Toluca have lost four of their last five Liga MX games and sit in 15th place in Liga MX. After Toluca, it would likely be a date with TFC in the quarterfinals.

Toronto

  • Path: Easiest
  • Squad: Fifth-best

There are so many variables with this TFC team right now. Will Jozy be back for the quarterfinals? Greg Vanney said on Friday that Altidore will likely see some minutes in the second leg of their round-of-16 series and on MLS opening weekend. Will he be back to his best by the quarters? Will the Reds have signed a Giovinco replacement by then?

Reports suggest they made an offer to Genk for captain Alejandro Pozuelo to arrive to Canada in a month. Could they get him registered in time for CCL? If the club gets both of them into the team by the quarters, then their squad ranking shoots up to first or second.

For now, however, it’s not even clear what formation or style they even plan to use. What is clear is that the lineup they used last game won’t win Champions League.

The path doesn’t matter until Toronto starts to develop some clarity about what their squad will look like.

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