The reigning Canadian champions learned that they will meet Costa Rican powerhouse Deportivo Saprissa in the opening round, a tricky opponent and a difficult trip to Central America to open their first season under new head coach Thierry Henry. Should the Impact survive that test, they’d meet the winner of the Seattle Sounders vs. CD Olimpia (Honduras) series in the quarterfinals.
“With the A8 position, it kind of makes it tough for us if we make it past the first round and go to the quarters,” said Gilmore at the draw event in Mexico City. “And Saprissa's a good team, a very good team, so it's going to be a tough first draw for us. Having said that, if you look at the bracket, we don’t face any Mexican clubs until the semifinals, so that makes it a little more – you’ve got to take the good with the bad.
“We go into Costa Rica, we’ve played there before, we’ve won there, not against Saprissa, but in fact last time we played there we won [vs. Alajuelense] and advanced to the Champions League final in 2015. So we’re familiar with the stadium, we’re familiar with the city, and looking forward to it.”
Montreal will host the second leg of their Round of 16 CCL series at Stade Olympique, their domed second home when Quebec's wintry chill is still in effect, in the final week of February before hosting the New England Revolution at the same venue for their MLS season opener the following Saturday. It will be the first of many schedule challenges in the months ahead.
“I’m not going to speak for Thierry, but … on the sporting side, we’re going to start discussing this as early as this week as we get ready for [preseason] training,” said Gilmore. “And understanding that you come into an MLS season, you’ve got the Champions League, and also the Canadian Championship, which starts in July – it’s a heavy load. And so a part of the planning is not just looking at your opponent and the bracket, but it’s also understanding the MLS games and how the schedule shakes out, because it makes for a very, very difficult first half of the season.”
Gilmore was also asked about the qualifying wrinkle in which Canadian MLS clubs can only reach the Champions League by winning the Canadian Championship, and miss out even if they win MLS Cup. Calling their CanChamp, achieved via a penalty-kick shootout win over fierce rivals Toronto FC in that tournament’s final, “a silver lining in an otherwise difficult season” in which they missed out on the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, Gilmore admitted that it would’ve been strange had TFC won the MLS Cup final and not represented the league in CCL
“I think it would be odd to have TFC win MLS Cup and not advance [to CCL]. So it’s an issue that Concacaf will have to look at to see how they deal with this,” he said.
“And the key here is to have the best clubs in a tournament that allows them to battle for the Concacaf Champions League. It didn’t happen that way but had it happened that way, it would’ve been an odd circumstance.”