Don’t look now, but Concacaf Champions League is barely a week away.
While the rest of the league still has ample time to prepare for their season openers at month’s end, five MLS teams are racing the clock to be ready for their run at the continent’s top club competition. Here’s a quick rundown of where they stand.
The Five Stripes have bid farewell to some talented and beloved contributors this winter, and with some reported transfer dealings apparently still up in the air, don’t seem to be quite the finished article just yet. Atlanta have yet to taste defeat in early preseason scrimmages and both Martinezs, Josef and Pity, have hit the net repeatedly.
They’re embarking on Year Two under coach Frank de Boer and that familiarity, combined with their ample remaining roster quality, should be enough to pilot them past Honduras’ Motagua in the opening round. Assuming they can avoid a disastrously one-sided loss in the first leg down in Central America like the one that undid Toronto FC a year ago.
The Supporters’ Shield holders have the toughest first-round assignment, a date with Liga MX’s Club Leon. And now they’ll do it without striker Adama Diomande, who suffered a broken metatarsal in a preseason scrimmage vs. New York City FC Jan. 31. It’s a big hit at perhaps the only soft spot in Bob Bradley’s roster.
Does this mean Carlos Vela will reprise the false 9 role he manned at times last year? Will one of the young and less-proven reserves get a shot in that spot or will Bradley Wright-Phillips, who announced he’s an LAFC player on social media, reclaim some of his past magic?
And how smoothly will the key South Americans returning from international duty fold back into the rhythm? Lots of questions facing Bradley.
The 2015 CCL finalists have made some moves to strengthen their squad this offseason. But, by far the most prominent story around the club is the Ignacio Piatti saga, with the veteran playmaker reportedly set to return to Argentina – as he seems to have desired for months – to rejoin San Lorenzo.
If the transaction that’s been reported in South American media goes through, Montreal could receive two young players and a transfer fee in compensation. But the timing of all this is suboptimal, and new coach Thierry Henry has signaled his annoyance as he prepares the group for a stiff first-round challenge in Costa Rican heavyweights Saprissa.
New York City FC
You might consider NYCFC to be this year’s Atlanta in CCL: They’ve got the horses (the Cityzens are one of the more complete teams in the league, at least on paper), but there’s built-in uncertainty because of a new coach.
Like De Boer in 2019, Ronnie Deila faces a steep learning curve in his first months on the job and a Concacaf trip to Costa Rica – where Cinderella story San Carlos, led by ageless MLS alum Alvaro Saborio, await – could prove devilishly tricky. To this observer, De Boer got outcoached by then-Monterrey boss Diego Alonso in last year’s CCL. Can Deila avoid a similar fate?
With battle-tested regulars and ample history in CCL, the reigning MLS Cup champs should be poised to carry the league’s flag deep into this year’s tournament. Yet they’ve complicated their preparation at bit by making a significant change to their defense, letting center backs Kim Kee-hee and Roman Torres leave and signing Yeimar Gomez Andrade just a few days ago.
The Colombian newcomer looks talented, but has limited time to find his feet alongside Xavier Arreaga before the Rave Green visit Honduras’ CD Olimpia.