CONCACAF Champions League Preview: How Will MLS Do?

Can you believe how time flies? It's the most anticipated day of the season (for somebody, probably). I’m talking about the CONCACAF Champions League! The tournament we all count down the days to each and every year … right?

If you didn’t realize the first games of the tournament are tomorrow, don’t worry. You’re not alone. The tournament kicks off with Liga MX side C.F. Pachuca taking on Honduran club Deportivo Olimpia and Central FC of Trinidad and Tobago facing MLS’ own Vancouver Whitecaps.

It seems no one in MLS is quite sure how to feel about the CCL. It starts right at that crucial point of the season where injuries are starting to pile up and the playoff picture is beginning to take shape, and then ends as MLS clubs are just getting back into preseason fitness and form. 

Perhaps nothing sums up MLS’ feelings toward the CCL quite like this tweet from the L.A. Galaxy after Santos Laguna found the net for the fourth time in last year’s tournament:

Can you imagine the same reaction if Seattle had put up a four goal shutout against the Galaxy in MLS Cup playoffs? Me neither.

History doesn’t bode well for MLS in CCL play. No MLS team has won under the current CCL format. In fact, Mexico has had the CCL on lockdown with Mexican clubs winning every year since the new CCL format was introduced in 2008.

But here we are once again, for better or for worse, so let’s take a look at how MLS teams might fare in the 2016-17 tournament.

Portland Timbers

Who better to start with than the reigning MLS Cup champions? Well, right off the top we can say one thing: This is not the same PTFC as last year. The Timbers currently sit outside of the playoffs in the bottom half of the Western Conference and recently lost their starting CB Nat Borchers for the season to an Achilles injury. Perhaps more damning, though, is that the Timbers have yet to win a match away from Providence Park.

Going winless on the road won’t get you far in any competition, let alone one with as much long distance travel as the CCL. Coming away with a strong performance and three points from what should be a winnable match on Wednesday against Salvadorian side C.D. Dragón will set the tone for the rest of the tournament. If they can’t win that match, the outlook will be grim for the men from the Rose City as they face CCL mainstays and Costa Rican giants Deportivo Saprissa.

Sporting Kansas City

Next up we have the reigning U.S. Open Cup champions Sporting KC. Peter Vermes is one of the few coaches that takes the CCL (and Open Cup for that matter) as seriously as MLS Cup. Don’t expect to see Vermes put a cupcake lineup on the pitch to preserve his stars for MLS play. SKC has been active in the transfer window having recently added Honduran fullback Ever Alvarado, former Montreal striker Cameron Porter and midfielder Emmanuel Appiah to bolster their lineup for CCL play. Vermes isn’t done either, saying he’s still looking to add more pieces.

But the injury bug has hit SKC. Hard. Both of SKC’s starting CBs – perennial MLS All-Star/USMNT mainstay Matt Besler and his counterpart Nuno Andre Coelho – have been out of the lineup with leg injuries. That leaves injury prone Ike Opara and CDM turned CB Lawrence Olum to hold down the back line. Sporting’s other USMNT star, Graham Zusi, also can’t seem to stay healthy. Brad Davis and Justin Mapp have been fighting through nagging pains all season long. Starting keeper Tim Melia missed yesterday’s win against the Timbers with back spasms. Combine these with the off-season loss of goal scorer Krisztián Németh and the CCL road looks rough for SKC. Despite the injuries, Group C should come down to either SKC or Vancouver, as Trinidad and Tobago side Central FC shouldn’t prove to be too much of a challenge.

New York Red Bulls

Let’s move on to the 2015 Supporters’ Shield winners. If the Red Bulls could somehow play NYCFC in the CCL I’d fly to Vegas right now and put all the money on them. Unfortunately for NYRB, that’s not the case. In order for the Red Bulls to get out of Group F, they have to get through Guatemalan side Antigua GFC and Salvadorian powerhouse Alianza FC.

The Red Bulls have been in decent form as of late after a terrible start to MLS play. But as with many MLS teams, you’re never really sure which Red Bulls team will show up on any given day. With short turnarounds and long flights between matches, there’s some potential for the Red Bulls to run into trouble in Group play. Despite these challenges, it’s fair to expect the Red Bulls to make it out of the group on top.

FC Dallas

Had I written this preview two weeks ago, I might have said FC Dallas is the MLS best shot at taking the CCL this year. After all, FC Dallas currently sits atop the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings with 44 points. Not bad. But then the Fabián Castillo saga began to unfold.

Two days ago it looked like the Colombian attacker was all but sold to Turkish side Trabzonspor. Then yesterday ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman said the deal is “dead.” So where in the world is Fabian Castillo? Well, we’re not really sure. But it’s a safe bet he’s not in Dallas.

Even still, one player alone doesn’t get you to the top of the standings. Dallas still has many talented players, including MLS All-Stars Mauro Diaz and Kellyn Acosta. They should be able to at least get out of the group stage, but after that things will be much more difficult for Óscar Pareja’s team.

Vancouver Whitecaps

Ok, so technically the Whitecaps didn’t make the CCL through MLS play. They earned their entry through the Canadian Championship (aka the three way battle between the Whitecaps, Montreal and Toronto FC for Canadian supremacy … sorry Ottawa and FC Edmonton).

Regardless of how they got to the CCL, Vancouver was unlucky to draw fellow MLS team Sporting KC in their group, which won’t make getting out of the group stage easy. Vancouver and SKC have had some great battles in the last few years. Any time Vancouver CB Kendall Waston and SKC striker Dom Dwyer get on the pitch together, well … let’s just say they aren’t big fans of each other, which should make for an interesting couple of games. But even if they make it past SKC, getting through the quarterfinals will be difficult as they’ll likely face a tough Liga MX team.

So where does that leave us?

Honestly, this is a tough one to call. It wouldn’t surprise me to see four MLS teams win their groups and move on to the quarter finals. It also wouldn’t necessarily surprise me if only one does. In reality, though, no matter how many survive the group stage, the likelihood of the MLS CCL drought ending this time around is small.

MLS sent four teams through to the quarterfinals last year only to go 0-4 against Liga MX teams. Each of those MLS teams were arguably better than the MLS teams in this year’s tournament. In all likelihood Mexico will continue their run of dominance for another year, with former CCL champion Pachuca or Monterrey likely the favorites to win it all. 

Vancouver vs Central FC will be broadcast on the Univision Deportes Network (UDN) at 8 PM EST.