The first edition of the Leagues Cup kicks off Tuesday night, raising the question of which Major League Soccer participant could take a victory lap at the end of the tournament.
On cue, we're here to rank the likelihood of a championship celebration for all four stateside aspirants. No factor has gone unnoticed; squad strengths and weaknesses, form, international track record, difficulty of the first-round hurdle and bracket possibilities have all been weighed in respective importance.
No. 4: Chicago Fire
Why do we count Veljko Paunovic's bunch as the least likely MLS club to win the inaugural Leagues Cup prize? Well, one could point to opening round foe Cruz Azul's central midfield pack of Rafael Baca, Yoshimar Yotun (both well-accustomed to MLS trenches, mind you) and Orbelin Pineda, which has the quality to shut down Chicago's play-driving engine room.
One could also talk about how, even considering the addition of left back Jonathan Bornstein, the Fire struggle mightily to contain the sort of wing pressure Mexican clubs thrive upon (who on the roster can handle left winger Elias Hernandez?). With Cruz Azul striker Milton Caraglio and potential second-round terror Zlatan Ibrahimovic in their path, one could also note that Chicago routinely have trouble with strong target strikers.
In the end, though, it really comes down to the fact that the Fire are mired in a 1W-6L-4D slump, including seven games of leaking multiple goals. They’ve become the MLS standard-bearer for blowing games when they own the run of play.
No. 3: Houston Dynamo
On the face of it, the Dynamo might seem to have as good a shot as any MLS entrant to make a title run. They'll get at least the opening game at home, where they're an entirely different (read: far better) team. Their main attacking trio is can be deadly at times, and first-round opponent Club America has just waved goodbye to top defender Edson Alvarez. Of course, they established drawn out tourney cred by winning the U.S. Open Cup last year.
However, some important factors seem to limit their Leagues Cup chances. Three potent offenses are in their half of the draw and Houston have major issues at the back. During their current 2W-7L-1D run, the Dynamo have conceded 22 times (!!!). Now, they're tasked with shutting down the dangerous Club America trio of Nicolas Castillo, Renato Ibarra and Roger Martinez, all to get to the second round.
Obviously, they aren't going anywhere near the medal stand if they can't get by the Las Aguilas on Wednesday. It's a championship-caliber side, loaded with experience and expertly led by manager Miguel Herrera. And it's one with a right side (typically captain Paul Aguilar and Ibarra) that has the ability to pin back Houston on that flank, eliminating the wide play balance that makes it easier for star winger Alberth Elis to run wild.
No. 2: Real Salt Lake
If only because RSL must find a way past Liga MX power Tigres UANL in the first round, this second spot could have easily been a coin flip. That they get to face the defending Liga MX champs, who only began their new season this weekend, before they get a chance to rev up to full speed is a worthwhile bonus. But it's not the only factor weighing in RSL's favor here.
Not only do Real Salt Lake get this crucial first contest in the friendly confines of Rio Tinto Stadium, but they'd also have the shortest trek to the eventual title game in Las Vegas during a fixture-crowded summer. The club has also already made it publicly known that they are placing a high priority on the Leagues Cup, which presumably means less lineup shuffling for these games. Further, the club's well-balanced squad appears to be rounding into late-season form.
The X factor, though, is goalkeeper Nick Rimando. The veteran, now in his final season as a professional, is the most reliable penalty-stopper on the four MLS rosters – and Leagues Cup matches will go straight to spot kicks if tied after 90 minutes. He's won three of his four career shootouts, and in the one he lost (the 2013 MLS Cup final) it took Sporting Kansas City 10 rounds to disappoint him. In this tournament, it’s not an insignificant advantage.
No. 1: LA Galaxy
The Galaxy are the clear favorite among MLS contenders to wear the Leagues Cup crown, and there are myriad reasons why.
For starters, they have the easiest first round-challenge in Club Tijuana. The Galaxy also have key midfield cogs with plenty of experience handling Mexican foes in Joe Corona and Jonathan dos Santos. They have the strongest team defense among the four MLS sides – at least when they're not facing the San Jose Earthquakes.
Most of all, they have the most destructive weapon available for this title fight in Ibrahimovic, though head Guillermo Barros Schelotto said he will not play in Tuesday night's match along with Dos Santos. The title-hungry striker is never short on confidence and this is another chance for him to prove it. Besides, it's no secret that Mexican teams tend to have a torrid time with large power forwards. For most on the four Liga MX participants, this will be their first up-close and personal look at the Galaxy superstar.
When the occasion is big, you simply don't mess with the Zlatan.