Sisyphus and his eternal boulder-rolling. Moses and the Hebrews wandering the desert for 40 years. Charlie Brown, Lucy and that infamous football.
Pick whatever metaphor you prefer for MLS’s seemingly endless pursuit of a first-ever Concacaf Champions League title. By now the league’s decade-plus streak of frustration is well known, a perennial source of disappointment that cuts against the larger narrative of growth and progress, and a lingering source of bragging rights for Liga MX.
I have no idea whether that skid will continue for another year. I am confident, however, that the CCL’s 2020 resumption, which was officially announced Monday, offers MLS a better chance at regional glory than the status quo did when things got interrupted back in March.
You can check out the details here if you haven’t already – and bear in mind that some key info is yet to be confirmed, most importantly the specific US location at which the Dec. 15-22 tournament will be held. (You can expect it to be a mild-weather locale in the southern or western United States, unfortunately without fans in attendance, in all likelihood.)
This year’s CCL edition wasn’t unfolding all that serendipitously for the league’s four representatives back in early spring, if we’re being honest. The defending league champs from Seattle got upset by plucky Honduran side CD Olimpia in the first round. Then Supporters’ Shield winners LAFC spotted Club Leon a two-goal aggregate lead in the first leg of their tie, requiring a storming 3-0 comeback win at home to survive and advance.
Olimpia then continued making trouble with an upset away win over the Montreal Impact and NYCFC lost 1-0 at home to Mexican giants Tigres in the first leg of those quarterfinal series. All the while, Atlanta United gave us a preview of their 2020 league struggles by getting dominated 3-0 at Estadio Azteca by Club America. That appeared to leave LAFC as likely the only hope for MLS to defend its honor, before their March 12 first-leg showdown with Cruz Azul became one of North American soccer’s first casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On balance, shifting the setting for these matchups probably shrinks the degree of difficulty for the MLSers a tad bit. Not enough to dramatically shift the betting odds, perhaps, but enough of a fresh start to engender some hope – itself an enormous intangible in these situations.
The new, compressed format saves Montreal and NYCFC from long, difficult trips to Tegucigalpa, Honduras and Monterrey, Mexico, respectively. Atlanta probably have the most reason to rue the change, because it denies them the chance to attempt an epic fightback against Las Aguilas in front of a big, loud crowd in their home leg at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where they beat America in the 2019 Campeones Cup. But who knows just when the pandemic will allow that sort of spectacle to unfold again, anyway?
What’s even more influential than the loss of home-field advantage: the timing.
The calendar is the congenital flaw that’s always hampered MLS teams in CCL, and the latter stages of its predecessor, Concacaf Champions Cup. Key phases of both tournaments – knockout situations in particular – have unfolded in late winter and early spring.
While that typically falls right in the meat of league seasons in Mexico and Central America, it’s the worst possible time for MLS participants, forcing them to kick off preseason early and ramp up their physical and tactical periodization processes more aggressively. Add in the tough opposition, long travel and unfamiliar environments abroad, and you have a fiendishly-difficult road, as history demonstrates. Toronto FC got closer than anyone back in 2018, for example, and it nearly railroaded their entire season:
With a December CCL tourney, the MLS quartet have the chance to extend their peak levels of conditioning and sharpness into the offseason, rather than crank into gear ahead of schedule. It’s still a challenge, but a much more manageable one, especially for those who embark on deep runs in the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.
Which brings us to the not-inconsequential matter of qualification to that tournament. LAFC and NYCFC have already clinched their places in the postseason; Atlanta and Montreal still have work to do on Decision Day presented by AT&T. If they fail to snare a spot above the playoff line this weekend, they’re looking at more than a month of downtime between their last competitive match and the CCL resumption.
Which makes Sunday even more interesting.