Major League Soccer has achieved more than many could’ve imagined over the last five years, but there’s still one glaring hole on the league’s resume.
Although it will be a tough task for the five MLS clubs entered in the CONCACAF Champions League, the elusive prize the league has searched for could finally end up in the trophy case in April.
Only Real Salt Lake and the Montreal Impact have reached the final since the switch to the Champions League format, which has been dominated by clubs south of the border in Liga MX.
However, there’s hope that one of the five clubs from MLS entered into the newly configured format will break through and end the Mexican stranglehold on the competition.
Monday’s draw presented the New York Red Bulls and Seattle Sounders with favorable paths to the quarterfinals as they will take on minnows of CONCACAF.
The side of the bracket featuring the Red Bulls and Sounders also opens the door for a run to the final if both teams can come together and focus on the competition in February, March and April when MLS play starts to heat up.
Club Tijuana and Chivas de Guadalajara are no slouches, but they are easier opponents for the Red Bulls and Sounders than the other Mexican sides entered into the draw.
Over on the other side of the bracket, Toronto FC and the Colorado Rapids will face off in the Round of 16 in a two-legged contest that will almost certainly require the orange ball to be used in February.
Toronto FC will be the strongest MLS side to enter the competition and the Reds should be able to shrug off the Rapids, who plummeted back to Earth after a surprising 2016 season. New boss Anthony Hudson will have his side prepared for the task at hand, but Toronto’s chemistry will cause too many problems.
FC Dallas should be able to handle Tauro FC of Panama in the round of 16, but then they face a quarterfinal death wish against either Club America or Saprissa, who were paired against each other in the opening round.
The bottom half of the bracket is without a doubt tougher than the top part, but it also presents Toronto FC with the opportunity to slay regional giants on the way to the crown jewel of their final conquest of North American soccer.
In any other year, an MLS club would stand no chance against Tigres in the quarterfinal and then sustain the pressure of a semifinal matchup with Club America, but the Reds are not like anything we’ve seen before in MLS, which is why Greg Vanney’s bunch is the great hope MLS has to bring home continental glory.
Motivation and depth, two issues that plague MLS teams in the early third of the calendar, are not problems for Toronto, and it will have most of its core back for the 2018 season so developing a new understanding within like the Rapids will have to do in preseason is far from a concern.
With the MLS preseason beginning on January 22, Toronto and the four other MLS participants in the CCL will have ample time to get ready for their continental challenges.
The new format that got rid of group qualification for the best clubs in North America should also help the MLS teams involved in the CCL.
The new CCL is a three-month tournament with a maximum of eight games played starting in the week of February 20.
Throwing league play to the wayside is a common trait of MLS teams chasing the CCL crown, but Toronto has the ability to thrive in continental play and pick up early results in MLS due to its depth.
Imagine seeing a fully-rested Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco taking on the firepower of two Mexican clubs in March and April.
It would be a continental clash for the ages, and with everything else accomplished, there’s no doubt the Reds will have the CCL on their list of goals for 2018.
There’s a chance the Red Bulls and Sounders could get through the top half of the bracket through the final, but the Red Bulls have some questions in terms of experience, especially if Sacha Kljestan departs New Jersey.
Brian Schmetzer’s side is expected to have a Toronto-like focus to attempt winning the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup, but their depth may be called into question with the motivation to get back to the league’s biggest stage and become champions again.
Of course plenty can change between now and the time the first CCL game is played in February, but there certainly won’t be a lack of confidence in an MLS team coming out on top in 2018, especially if Toronto splashes into the competition with the intensity it delivered throughout the 2017 MLS campaign.