With Portland Timbers and Atlanta United beginning their Concacaf Champions League quests this evening in Central America (at Honduras’s Marathón and Costa Rica’s Saprissa, respectively), it is time for the annual pain to begin.
Is this the year an MLS team finally gets over the hump?
5 p.m. CDT @ Marathón • San Pedro Sula, Honduras • FS1
The (likely) path to the semis: Marathón (HON), Club América (MEX)
Tonight’s outlook: Marathón has played in CCL once since the 2012-13 season – indeed, after advancing to knockouts in the first two tournaments in the “Champions League” format, the club failed to make it out of the group the subsequent two years. Their lone appearance since then (2019, long after group play was removed from the tournament’s structure) saw Marathón lose 11-2 on aggregate against Santos Laguna.
Olímpia and Motagua have been the far more successful Honduran clubs in both qualifying for and finding success in CCL. However, Marathón advanced through Concacaf League – the B-side to CCL – to join Olímpia in the Sweet 16. It’s worth noting that their performance in the home leg against Santos Laguna was superior to the away leg back in 2019 (6-2, versus a 5-0 loss in Torreón). San Pedro Sula is not known for being particularly hospitable to visitors, but the Timbers should be able to come away with enough to set themselves up for success in the home leg.
Bowing out: I have a really hard time seeing this PTFC team making it past América, typically the most-expensively-built roster in Concacaf.
7 p.m. CDT @ Alajuelense • Alajuela, Costa Rica • FS1
The (likely) path to the semis: Alajuelense (Costa Rica), Philadelphia Union (MLS)
Tonight’s outlook: I think Alajuelense is a really good team, and unless Josef Martinez is both the missing ingredient for Atlanta United and literally magical… at least tonight’s first leg does not project to go well. The task for new head coach Gabriel Heinze is likely to keep the game manageable. A draw is as good as a victory, with the home leg favoring ATL UTD. Even a single-goal loss (particularly a high-scoring one) would not be too problematic, at least giving the Five Stripes a chance to make their move on home turf.
But the boys from Alajuela seem to be on a path to becoming the dominant team in Costa Rica. While Herediano will certainly have something to say about that, Saprissa (the alma mater of Nashville SC’s own Randall Leal) seems to have lost a step and needs to recapture its previous magic. Atlanta may be running up against a team that’s in form at just the right time, and for many MLS teams – but particularly those with new coaches and reconfigured personnel – that same rhythm is not hitting.
Bowing out: I don’t see Atlanta getting past Alajuelense in the two-legged tie. Even if they do, a home-and-away against either the Philadelphia Union that ran away with the Supporters’ Shield last year (and was nigh-unbeatable at home) or a second-straight home-and-home involving a flight to Costa Rica? Not promising.
Will look to the other MLS teams in the competition – Philly, Toronto FC, and Columbus Crew – as their game approach in the next few days.
We also briefly talked about CCL on the second episode of the Club and Country podcast! Check it out below, with all your rate/review/subscribe reminders applying, as well.