Every year MLS fans get to be Tantalus in Tartarus (or Charlie Brown running at the football if you prefer). Every year there is excitement and rationale, tempered expectations and hope. Every year that hope turns into disappointment.
Every year there is the Concacaf Champions League, this confederation's brutal and spirit-breaking rite of passage. It almost invariably feels, for a month or two, like this is the year. Invariably – no almost about it – it hasn't been. Here are 2020's brave warriors sent on a noble quest to end this futility:
- Montreal Impact, Canadian Championship winners
- Seattle Sounders, MLS Cup winners
- LAFC, Supporters' Shield winners
- Atlanta United, U.S. Open Cup winners
- NYCFC, Eastern Conference regular season winners
Once more unto the breach, dear friends...
Who's got the best draw?
Let's take a look at the bracket so we've all got our bearings:
With all due respect to the Impact, who missed the playoffs, saw their best player depart in the offseason, appointed a new and minimally experienced head coach, and have not added much in the way of reinforcements, you've got to like the Sounders' quadrant. Montreal won't hate their chances, to be clear – they're a coin flip to get past Saprissa and then likely wouldn't feel any special fear at going against Seattle in the quarterfinals – but this feels set up pretty damn well for the MLS Cup champs.
That's not to say that Olimpia, who are perennial Honduran powers and who've smashed MLS teams in this competition before, are pushovers. They're not. But they are prohibitive underdogs the Sounders in the Round of 16.
Seattle's goal in the first leg this week in Honduras will be straight-forward, if not necessarily simple: bag one goal and give up no more than two (the away goals rule is in effect, mind you). Both bits are important, but the second one is the more interesting one given the "still under construction" nature of Seattle's backline.
If Seattle do advance to the quarterfinals, they will be favorites against either Saprissa or Montreal. If they do advance past Saprissa or Montreal, they will most likely face a semifinal match-up against UANL Tigres, the freest-spending and most successful club in North America over the past decade. So they will be underdogs.
But it might not be Tigres, and even if it is, it's not likely to be full-strength Tigres. And that's not because of injury. It's because of their coach.
Tuca Ferretti is a legend and will go down as one of the great managers in North American soccer history, but he's also been almost painfully honest about deprioritizing the CCL over his decade in charge. Every year the Tigres board of directors, the fans and even the players will say that they want, more than anything, to win the CCL. Every year Tuca will say that he only really cares about the league, and then puts deeds to his words by trotting out back-ups in international play.
Granted, there are about four DP-level players (a striker pairing of Edu Vargas and Enner Valencia would be nice) and a half-dozen TAM-level players among Tigres' back-ups, but the margins between them and the starters have been, year after year, thin enough so that Tigres have never won the tournament. Tuca has not been especially bothered by that.
So yes, maybe not full-strength Tigres in the semifinals if Seattle make it that far, and even if it is full-strength Tigres, this match-up would come in early April. Seattle will have worked out the offseason cobwebs by then, most likely, and would have more than just a puncher's chance – especially because Tigres are in the midst of something close to a meltdown. There's been more of stuff like this than there's been wins during the Clausura:
If it's not Tigres in the semis in that quadrant, then it'll be NYCFC. They are massive favorites over tiny San Carlos in the Round of 16, in large part because San Carlos are minnows and are slumping in the Costa Rican league, but also because NYCFC have returned so much of last year's 64-point team, as in over 90% of their minutes played and, by my count, their top 13 players.
This is not an easy road for NYCFC. They're in Costa Rica in the first leg against San Carlos, then at Red Bull Arena for the second. They then open the MLS regular season with two road games against Eastern Conference foes, and then, on three days of rest, they'll have that first leg against Tigres. They'll be doing it while learning the ways of a new head coach in Ronny Deila.
It is a lot. But this group has done similar work before. From August 17 through September 14 of last season they had seven games — that's a game every four days for a month — and went 6-0-1 with a +9 goal differential. Only one player who started a game during that stretch (back-up right back Eric Miller if you're wondering) is gone. Everybody else of relevance on the roster from that run of games is back and available and, if the stars align and Deila pulls the right strings, can do this.
And then if they get past Tigres and into the semis? I'm pretty sure they'll like their chances no matter who they face.
The other side of the bracket is, frankly, harder. Atlanta United have Motagua – Olimpia's great rivals – in the Round of 16, and should advance. Then they face the biggest and most successful team in North American soccer history in Club América, and in Piojo Herrera Las Águilas have a head coach who cares very, very much about international tournaments.
Atlanta actually have first-hand experience with that, as they faced and beat América in last year's Campeones' Cup. Piojo played his first XI while Frank De Boer put out a squad mixed with first-teamers and back-ups, and while there's been a lot of turnover for the Five Stripes this winter there is, at the very least, some institutional memory both of this tournament and of beating their likely quarterfinal foes.
If Atlanta do their best TFC 2018 impression and get past Club América, then whoever they face in the semifinals will have been through the wood chipper. LAFC are arguably the most talented team in MLS, but their first opponents are Club Leon, currently third in the Clausura table. Whoever advances from that scrum will likely face Cruz Azul – perpetually desperate to win any trophy they can and thus likely to be throwing everything they have at this tournament while still maintaining a place in the Liguilla race (they're currently fifth) – in the quarterfinals.
So for LAFC the path would be Liga MX playoff team to Liga MX playoff team to either Atlanta United or Club América, and then to the final.
It is the toughest route any team has ever had to a potential CCL championship.
Who has the most talented team?
I said "arguably the most talented team in MLS" for LAFC, and here's the argument: Carlos Vela is the best player in the league, Diego Rossi is the best young player in the league, and Brian Rodriguez is probably better than him.
They addressed their need for depth in central midfield by bringing in arguably the best d-mid at last year's U-20 World Cup in Jose Cifuentes, as well as a starter for Uruguay's U-20 team at that same World Cup in Francisco Ginella. They addressed their need for depth at center forward by signing one of the all-time MLS scoring leaders in Bradley Wright-Phillips and by trusting their internal development process (you going to argue with them after what Rossi, Latif Blessing, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Eduard Atuesta have done?) to turn Adrien Perez into a contributor. They feel they upgraded at 'keeper by adding Kenneth Vermeer, who has UEFA Champions League experience with Ajax and Feyenoord, as well as Olympic and World Cup qualifying experience with the Netherlands.
If there is an argument against them it is that, after the Walker Zimmerman trade, they are a bit thin and scattered in defense. I'm not sure whether Tristan Blackmon is meant to be Zimmerman's direct replacement, as he was at times last year, or if he'll be at right back and Zimmerman's old spot trusted to one of the CBs on the roster.
Atlanta, Seattle and — to a lesser extent because I don't think they have one guy who could end up being the best player in the tournament — NYCFC can all make cogent arguments. Atlanta's would be based upon their "ceiling" players (Is Josef Martinez the best striker in this tournament? Could Miles Robinson be the best CB in this tournament if he gets fit? Could Pity Martinez treat this the way he did the 2018 Copa Libertadores? All of those things are in play!), though like LAFC they have a few gaps and question marks in key spots.
Seattle's argument probably rests upon how good Yeimar Gomez Andrade actually is, and how quickly he and Xavier Arreaga form a complementary duo. If that happens off the bat, and if Joao Paulo is as good for Seattle as he was for Botafogo (no reason to think he won't be, for what it's worth), then the sheer solidity of Seattle's spine combined with the match-winning ability of Raul Ruidiaz, Jordan Morris and Nico Lodeiro is the argument. The upside for this team might not be as high as it is with Vela or Josef, but it's still very high, and there are probably no weak links for Seattle.
With LAFC, Vela or Atuesta could be the player of the tournament. Atlanta it's Josef or Pity. With Seattle it's Lodeiro or Ruidiaz. With NYCFC, I think they're even more balanced than Seattle, but I don't think their best players are quite at that level.
Any extra incentives?
Whichever MLS team becomes the first to win this will be remembered forever, of course. Just winning is incentive enough, but adding that into it is extra reason not to treat these like preseason games.
But LAFC, Seattle and Atlanta all have more on their plates because any of the three, if they win, have plausible "actually, we're the best MLS team of all-time" arguments to make.
• Atlanta will have won four trophies – MLS Cup, U.S. Open Cup, Campeones Cup and CCL – in three years. Two of them will have come against Liga MX teams at one point or another.
• LAFC will have followed up 2019's record-setting regular season by being the first up CCL mountain. And if that happens, the "we only lost to Seattle because Blessing and Kaye were hurt" excuse doesn't seem like an excuse anymore; it seems like a concrete reason.
• Seattle will have two MLS Cups and three appearances in four years, followed by a CCL title. And if that happens, the "the only reason we didn't win last year's Shield in addition to MLS Cup is because we lost so many players to injury and international absence throughout the year. Again, that would seem less like fans making excuses and more like a concrete reason.
As good as NYCFC are, I'm not sure I would automatically bump them to the top of the "best MLS team of all-time" rankings if they win this. Maybe that's wrong of me. I don't know.
As for Montreal, their extra incentive is that I didn't mention them in the previous segment about which MLS team is the most talented.
So what's it gonna be, then?
In terms of who's got the best chance, here's how I've got 'em:
In terms of what I think is going to happen... Tigres stink right now. Andre-Pierre Gignac is not moving well, Valencia has been mostly ineffective, Carlos Salcedo is struggling and Vargas seems to want out. It feels a little bit like this is a gap year, or at least a gap season, and that they're hard on the downslope with this mostly 30-and-over group.
They have done a ton together, but as mentioned above, there is one thing left undone for them. So what more fitting end to this era than to go out there once more, except this time they actually win the thing?
Maybe if it happens, Tuca would even celebrate a little bit.