The CONCACAF Champions League has been a place of heartbreak for MLS. But this year, the league has the best chance it has ever had to end the misery.
It has been said over and over again. It will be said plenty more for as long as it remains true. A Major League Soccer team has never won the CONCACAF Champions League.
Liga MX sides have dominated the CCL, winning every season since the Champions League restructured in 2008. They have also had eight of the 12 runners-up spots, perhaps an even greater illustration of their dominance.
MLS teams do not fare well in the CCL, no matter how many resources they plough into their rosters and preseason attention they give to the competition. The Mexican sides are simply superior.
But the gap is closing. It has done substantially in recent years, with an increasing influx of Liga MX players making the move to MLS. Greater spending has improved the overall quality of the league, the DP rules have been loosened, and there is a wider understanding that teams must invest to gain rewards.
New teams have entered the leagues with major backers. They have built some of the best teams the league has ever seen, grabbing some of the best players Mexico and South American has to offer. There is now a concerted and noticeable drive to build teams that are capable of challenging in the CCL and beyond. And as the 2020 iteration looms, MLS might well boast its best-ever chance to win the ever-elusive competition.
The argument is simple: the quality and diversity of the teams that the league will enter. The Seattle Sounders have one of the most complete teams in the league with Nicolas Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris forming one of the most fearsome attacking triumvirates in the region. New York City FC boast very few weaknesses, returning 90% of their minutes from last season’s roster and all of their top 10 players.
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Then there is Atlanta United and Los Angeles FC, two teams that have been built in a very similar manner with the very same goal: to be a truly globally successful team. Carlos Vela might be the best player in the entire tournament, while Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez are not far behind, and the additions of Jose Cifuentes and Kenneth Vermeer add depth and quality at defensive midfield and goalkeeper, two of Los Angeles’ ‘weaker’ positions last season.
Despite losing some key pieces in the offseason and looking especially light in central midfield, Josef Martinez is the best goalscorer in the region, and if Atlanta can get the best out of Ezequiel Barco, keep Miles Robinson fit, and see Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez return to his South American Player of the Year form from 2018, they have arguably the most talented team in the draw.
The Mexican teams are no gimmes. Club America, Club Leon, Tigres. These are the giants of the Mexican game. All have pierced many an MLS heart over the years, and will probably pierce some more this time around, too.
But for the first time in a long time, MLS can finally get close to the talent of the Liga MX teams. Will any of them be favourites? No. And they shouldn’t be. But do they have a chance? Yes, in fact, it might be the best chance they have ever had.