CONCACAF Champions League preview: Sizing up MLS clubs' chances of raising the trophy

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Reigning MVP <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/383782/" data-ylk="slk:Josef Martinez">Josef Martinez</a> and Atlanta United hope to end MLS’ drought in the CONCACAF Champions League. (Sporting News)
Reigning MVP Josef Martinez and Atlanta United hope to end MLS’ drought in the CONCACAF Champions League. (Sporting News)

The 2019 CONCACAF Champions League kicks off this week right here at Yahoo Sports, the official English-language broadcaster of the region’s top club competition.

For the five MLS teams involved in the tournament, the goal is clear: to break Mexico’s stranglehold on the silverware and become the first squad from the top league in the United States and Canada to hoist the trophy. No MLS team has won the competition since it switched to its current format over a decade ago. In fact, only two MLS teams have ever reached the summit in North and Central America and the Caribbean: D.C. United in 1998, and the LA Galaxy three years later.  

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Meantime, Liga MX teams have won all 10 Champions League titles. Just three of those victories came against MLS teams, no surprise considering how much deeper Mexican sides are than their salary-capped counterparts from north of the border. When Club America beat the Montreal Impact in 2015, it did so with a payroll that was 10 times higher than the MLS side.  

Still, there is evidence that American and Canadian entries are getting closer. Real Salt Lake narrowly lost to Pachuca in 2011, and in 2018 Toronto beat America and Tigres in consecutive knockout stage home-and-home series before falling to C.D. Guadalajara on penalty kicks.

Could this be the year that an MLS team finally wins the title (and clinches the FIFA Club World Cup berth that comes with it?) Here’s how the league’s five reps stack up.

Atlanta United 

Why they can win it:

Barely two months removed from winning MLS Cup, the Five Stripes were arguably the best team in league history last season. Sure, they lost coach Tata Martino (to Mexico’s national team), playmaker Miguel Almiron (Newcastle United) and experienced left back Greg Garza (expansion Cincinnati FC) this winter. But Atlanta added the reigning South American player of the year in 25-year-old Argentine national teamer Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, and also re-upped Venezuelan striker Josef Martinez, whose 31 regular season goals in 2018 set a league record.

Why they can’t:

The club’s new manager, Dutchman Frank de Boer, has never coached outside Europe and therefore can’t possibly be prepared for the unique challenges playing on the road in Latin America: bumpy fields, difficult travel, constant gamesmanship on and off the pitch. Scheduling conflicts will force Atlanta, which averaged an MLS-record 53,000-plus fans last season, to play its Feb. 28 match versus Costa Rica’s Herediano at a 10,000-seat venue in suburban Kennesaw instead of downtown at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. And while the Martinez-Martinez combination looks great on paper, it might take time for the sort of telepathic understanding that Almiron and Josef Martinez enjoyed to develop.

Round of 16 matchup (winner decided by aggregate goals):

At Herediano (Costa Rica), Feb. 21 at 10 p.m. ET
Vs. Herediano, Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. ET

DaMarcus Beasley and U.S. Open Cup champion Houston hope to make a deep run in the CONCACAF Champions League. (Getty)
DaMarcus Beasley and U.S. Open Cup champion Houston hope to make a deep run in the CONCACAF Champions League. (Getty)

Houston Dynamo 

Why they can win it: Funny things happen in tournament play. Guadalajara was terrible in Liga MX last season but somehow found a way to win it all. (The club didn’t even qualify for the CCL this year.) Montreal was 45 minutes away from beating mighty America in the 2015 finale, just a few months after finishing the 2014 MLS season last overall. So who cares if the Dynamo missed the playoffs last season? Tomas Martinez can pass and Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas can score. Besides, Elis’ fellow Hondurans Boniek Garcia, Maynor Figueroa and Romell Quioto, as well as four-time U.S. World Cup rep DaMarcus Beasley, give Wilmer Cabrera’s team a ton of experience in CONCACAF.

Why they can’t: Depth, or rather the lack of it. Houston had the lowest payroll of any MLS team in 2018, and it wasn’t particularly close. With one of its three designated player slots unused, there just isn’t much offense on the roster after Elis, Martinez, Monotas and Quioto. And while Beasley, Garcia and Figueroa are grizzled veterans, they’re also 36, 35 and 34 years old, respectively.

Round of 16 two-leg matchup:

At Guastatoya (Guatemala), Feb. 19 at 10 p.m. ET
Vs. Guastatoya, Feb. 26 at 8 p.m. ET

New York Red Bulls

Why they can win it: The Red Bulls know the tournament inside out, having participated in it every year since 2014. After reaching the semifinals a year ago, they went on to win the MLS Supporters’ Shield as the regular season champ. And with the exception of Tyler Adams, who left this winter for the German Bundesliga, coach Chris Armas’ first-choice starting lineup returns intact.

Why they can’t: There’s no reason they can’t. Of the five MLS teams involved this year, it feels like New York might have the best chance. Then again, the departure of Adams leaves a huge hole in the midfield and in the dressing room. Star striker Bradley Wright-Phillips is also about to turn 34.

Round of 16 two-leg matchup:

At Atletico Pantoja (Dominican Republic), Feb. 20 at 8 p.m. ET
Vs. Atletico Pantoja, Feb. 27 at 8 p.m. ET

Can Chris Armas lead New York Red Bulls to the continental crown? (Getty)
Can Chris Armas lead New York Red Bulls to the continental crown? (Getty)

Sporting Kansas City  

Why they can win it: Free-agent signing Rodney Wallace, a Costa Rican World Cup vet, adds even more CONCACAF experience to a roster full of it. (SKC has played in the CCL three times since 2014.) And with Peter Vermes at the helm, there’s no doubt that Sporting will be one of the best-drilled teams in the competition.

Why they can’t: It remains to be seen if center back mainstay Matt Besler can immediately replicate the chemistry he and the since-traded Ike Opa had with Botond Barath or Andreu Fontas. And while Vermes gets more value out of his roster than any GM/technical director in MLS, the truth is that small-market Kansas City isn’t in the same financial ballpark as some of the clubs it will face.

Round of 16 two-leg matchup:

Vs. Toluca (Mexico), Feb. 21 at 8 p.m. ET
At Toluca, Feb. 28 at 10 p.m. ET

Sporting KC’s Matt Besler (pictured) will need to find chemistry with a new center back partner after Ike Opara’s trade. (Getty)
Sporting KC’s Matt Besler (pictured) will need to find chemistry with a new center back partner after Ike Opara’s trade. (Getty)

Toronto FC

Why they can win it: No MLS team has come closer than TFC did last year. The Reds have plenty to prove after missing the playoffs last season, and while Sebastian Giovinco is gone, you can be sure that the remaining nucleus of the roster, led by captain Michael Bradley, will be bent on making another deep run.

Why they can’t: Striker Jozy Altidore is coming off ankle surgery and can’t be expected to duplicate his scoring exploits of a year ago. And TFC isn’t scaring anyone without keychain-sized dynamo Giovinco, who looked like the best player in CONCACAF in almost single-footedly leading Toronto to the 2018 finale.

Round of 16 two-leg matchup:

At Independiente (Panama), Feb. 19 at 8 p.m.
Vs. Independiente, Feb. 26 at 8 p.m.

Toronto FC will need Jozy Altidore to pick up the offensive slack left by departed striker Sebastian Giovinco. (AP)
Toronto FC will need Jozy Altidore to pick up the offensive slack left by departed striker Sebastian Giovinco. (AP)

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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