Longtime readers know I’m a big Concacaf Champions League fan. MLS teams are off to their best-ever start in the current format of the competition. Is this the year? Quarterfinal matches begin this evening, with a pair of games (including an all-MLS matchup!) before two more tomorrow. Second legs of these matchups come around in a week.
All are televised nationally on Fox Sports 1, aside from the opening leg of the Columbus/Monterrey series, which is on FS2.
Let’s take a look.
Atlanta United v. Philadelphia Union
7:00 p.m. CDT tonight • Mercedes Benz Stadium, Atlanta
Leg two in Chester, Pa. next Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. CDT
How they got here: Inasmuch as the North American teams can earn upsets over Central American or Caribbean teams in the Round of 16, Atlanta certainly got one. The Five Stripes were easily the worst of these MLS teams a year ago – they made the competition thanks to being reigning US Open Cups after the competition was canceled last year – and Alajuelense is the strongest Concacaf team outside North America in recent seasons. ATL went on the road and earned an upset with only 10 men (and down their starting keeper after Brad Guzan’s red card), then held serve at home.
Philly had a simpler task against a lesser Costa Rican team. Saprissa – typically a Tico power along with Alajuelense – has fallen on relative hard times, and while that’s kept El Monstruo Morado near the top of the Costa Rican table, it’s not internationally competitive. Philly took a 1-0 lead in San José, then blasted Saprissa back in Pennsylvania.
The matchup: But for Atlanta’s struggles last year (in the absence of Josef Martínez, who has since returned, and starting out with outrageously unpopular coach Frank de Boer), this would probably be a matchup between two of the top three MLS teams over the past couple years – with the West represented by consistent-if-unspectacular Seattle.
There’s little question Atlanta got much better by simple virtue of re-adding Josef, to say nothing of a coach in Gabriel Heinze that couldn’t possibly be as unpopular in his own locker room as was de Boer. Meanwhile, Philly lost a couple big-money transfers to Europe (Brenden Aaronson to RB Salzburg and Mark McKenzie to Belgium’s Genk). That should be enough to make this two super-competitive legs.
Toronto FC v. Cruz Azul (Mexico)
9:00 p.m. CDT tonight • Raymond James Stadium Tampa, Fla.
Leg two in CDMX next Tuesday at 9:15 p.m. CDT
How they got here: TFC did something that’s extremely rare for MLS sides in this competition: won a home-and-home matchup with a Mexican team. The Reds drew Club León in Central Mexico, and did enough to hold on for victory in the “home” leg at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Florida. It turned out to be a nail-biter after Toronto had held a 2-0 lead because another tally would have given León the advancement on away goals.
Meanwhile, Cruz Azul is the class of Liga MX this season (worth noting that León is down in sixth), and after a scare against Haiti’s Arcahaie at a neutral site in Dominican Republic, blew the doors off back in Mexico City with an 8-0 cruise to this round.
The matchup: This is the toughest test for an MLS side, both because of the circumstances (TFC is playing at a neutral venue in Central Florida once more – and snowbird jokes aside, it’s probably more comfortable environs for a team from Mexico than one from cooler environs in the North), and because of how Cruz Azul has been performing at this stage in the Clausura.
A fully-healthy Toronto FC certainly has the potential here. With the age and injury history of this team in recent years, that may be a lot to ask. If the Reds can pull the upset in this series, it’s huge for the league’s chances of finally breaking through. Best-case scenario feels like a one-goal victory tonight, though it’s not out of reach with a low-scoring draw, either.
Columbus Crew v. Monterrey (Mexico)
7:30 p.m. CDT tomorrow • Crew Stadium, Columbus
Leg two in Monterrey next Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. CDT
How they got here: Columbus got one of the relative layups with Nicaragua’s Real Estelí in the Round of 16. A 4-0 win in Managua allowed the Crew to take off the accelerator upon return to Central Ohio – and Caleb Porter’s side still took a 1-0 victory (though lost young midfielder Aidan Morris in the process).
Monterrey made similarly simple work of Dominican Republic’s Atlético Pantoja, with wins of 3-0 and 3-1 over a squad that wasn’t particularly expected to compete.
The matchup: Monterrey is one of the giants of Mexican soccer, but like León is not having a banner year (Rayados sit in fourth, just two points ahead of their counterparts). This is a low-scoring offense complementing an extremely stingy backline.
For Columbus – a team that boasts the most recent MLS Cup on its trophy shelf, and only got better this offseason – this series sets up to be what we’d typically call the disappointment of the expectation bubble growing and then bursting against Liga MX sides that don’t look the best but play like they’ve been there before (and Rayados have, winning the 2019 edition of this tournament).
If the Crew shows up and plays like it’s not afraid of rising to the circumstances, it could set up well.
Portland Timbers v. Club América
9:30 p.m. CDT tomorrow • Providence Park, Portland
Leg two in CDMX next Wednesday at 9:15 p.m. CDT
How they got here: When you earn a multi-goal draw on the road in a first leg, you feel pretty good: you just have to win your home game, or draw at a lower score to advance. After going 2-2 in San Pedro Sula, the Timbers didn’t leave anything to chance, winning 5-0 back home in the Pacific Northwest.
Meanwhile, América is traditionally far-and-away the highest-budgeted club in the region, and while that hasn’t led to the top of the Liga MX table (five points back of Cruz Azul), it’s been more than enough to ensure that the club survives in CCL until at least facing a team from MLS – or a fellow Mexican side. Nonetheless, a scare against Honduran side Olimpia, which América advanced thanks to a pair of road goals in a 2-2 aggregate draw… is worrying.
The matchup: I would imagine that América takes the Portland Timbers a heck of a lot more seriously than CD Olimpia. Given that the domestic campaign is settled (América is locked into finishing second behind Cruz Azul with just one matchdate to play), the full focus can go onto Portland, as well.
This is a balanced side with a good-not-great attack and a good-not-great backline in comparison to the other teams near the top of the Liga MX table. The headlining talent isn’t quite there either, though it’s fair to say that a squad with eight guys boasting TransferMarkt values over $4.0 million isn’t exactly sweating the lack of a single player valued over $9.0m. That’s particularly true when Portland boasts just three guys valued over $4.0m and none over $5.0m.
Earning a victory in Rose City seems pretty darn important or the trip to Mexico City could be merely a formality.