Major League Soccer’s quest to end its lengthy Concacaf Champions League title drought begins on Tuesday, when the 2021 tournament’s Round of 16 action kicks off across the region.
2020 saw Liga MX continue to reign supreme in the tournament as Tigres defeated LAFC in the final. Five MLS teams will begin their quest to knock off their Concacaf counterparts for this year’s edition of the trophy.
Tuesday will see both the Portland Timbers and Atlanta United in action on the road against stiff competition. Giovanni Savarese’s men face a trip to Honduras against CD Marathon while Atlanta United takes on Costa Rican power LD Alajuelense.
Canada’s lone representative is Toronto FC, which will visit Mexican powerhouse Club Leon on Wednesday. Defending Supporters’ Shield winners Philadelphia Union makes their debut in the competition, but will go head-to-head with Costa Rican side Deportivo Saprissa.
2020 MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew are also on the road this week as Caleb Porter’s side takes on Real Esteli from Nicaragua.
The eight Round-of-16 matchups are spread across three days and the second legs will be played next week over the same time span. All five MLS sides begin the competition on the road before returning home for the return legs.
Here is a closer look at the matchups facing the five MLS teams in the Round-of-16 first legs:
Club Leon vs. Toronto FC
(Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, FS1, TUDN)
Toronto FC faces the toughest opponent out of the MLS contingent in the Round of 16, paying Liga MX side Club Leon a visit this week.
Chris Armas kicks off life as TFC head coach, taking over for Greg Vanney who is now with the LA Galaxy. The Canadian club can call on stars Alejandro Pozuelo, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley.
Club Leon is riding a four-match unbeaten run in league play coming into Wednesday’s first leg at the Estadio Nou Camp. Angel Mena comes in on good form for Leon, scoring three goals in his last three outings in Liga MX action.
Deportivo Saprissa vs. Philadelphia Union
(Wednesday, 6 p.m. ET, FS1, TUDN)
Jim Curtin’s Philadelphia Union makes their debut in the Concacaf Champions League, but won’t find it easy to slow down Deportivo Saprissa this week.
The defending Supporters’ Shield winners will be without several key starters through injuries, forcing others to step up. Kacper Przybylko, Sergio Santos, and Cory Burke will all likely miss the first leg for the Union, meaning Anthony Fontana or Ilsinho could be used in a false-nine position.
Alejandro Bedoya and Jose Martinez will lead the midfield for the Union, while defensively Kai Wagner and Jack Elliott headline the defensive players for Curtin to choose from.
Saprissa hasn’t won in its last seven matches in league play, but will be keen on getting after the Union at home. Defensively they have done well during this stretch, conceding only six goals from the past seven matches, but offensively they will need to be better to pick up a first-leg win.
Kendall Waston, Christian Bolanos, and David Guzman all have MLS experience and will look to make things difficult for the inexperienced Union at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa.
LD Alajuelense vs. Atlanta United
(Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET, FS1, TUDN)
Atlanta United might seem like an odd participant in the CCL Round of 16 after a dismal 2020 MLS campaign, but the Five Stripes have a chance to kick off a new season in a major way in Costa Rica.
Gabriel Heinze makes his Five Stripes coaching debut on Tuesday. Josef Martinez was included in Atlanta United’s traveling group, but his recent return from ACL surgery coupled with the unforgiving artificial turf surface at Alajuelense make it unlikely Martinez starts on Tuesday.
Atlanta United should have Jurgen Damm, Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres and Ezequiel Barco in attack, and will need to lean on its defense, led by Miles Robinson, in order to stop a dangerous Alajuelense attack.
Alajuelense leads the Costa Rican league by six points and overall is riding a 21-match unbeaten run which dates all the way back through December 2020. Costa Rican national team legend Bryan Ruiz leads the Liga attack, with Cuban forward Marcel Hernandez and Costa Rican forward Jurguens Montenegro also dangerous threats.
CD Marathon vs. Portland Timbers
(Tuesday, 6 p.m. ET, FS1, TUDN)
In the opening match of the Round of 16, CD Marathon welcomes the Portland Timbers to Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano on Tuesday evening.
Marathon’s 1-0 win over the weekend helped snap a six-match winless run in league play, a positive for the Honduran hosts. Kevin Hoyos scored the only goal of the match, and overall has scored twice in his last five appearances overall.
Like many other non-MLS sides, Marathon is in the thick of its domestic season, which could be a benefit in the final stages of the match.
Portland will try and kick off its season on fine fashion and has plenty of capable attacking players to choose from on the road this week. Diego Valeri remains the key playmaker for the Timbers and will also look for help from Eryk Williamson and Diego Chara with Sebastian Blanco still out through injury.
Larrys Mabiala is the leader of the Timbers backline and his experience could be crucial for Portland to get out of Honduras with a clean sheet and a win.
Real Esteli FC vs. Columbus Crew
(Thursday, 8 p.m. ET, FS1, TUDN)
Last but not least, the Columbus Crew will take the field for the first time in 2021, visiting Real Esteli on Thursday evening.
Caleb Porter’s side is coming off a sensational MLS Cup run, one that was capped off by the brilliance of Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe, and others. Joining the ranks this season is veteran winger Kevin Molino, who adds another dynamic piece to the Crew’s already-deadly attack.
Jonathan Mensah was a 2020 MLS Defender of the Year finalist and will be keen on helping the Crew get off to a winning start in defense of their title.
Real Esteli comes in on decent form, picking up two victories from its past five league matches. They remain very well in the mix for the Liga Primera title, sitting fourth and four points back of leaders Diriangen.
Offensively, they have several players coming in on good goalscoring form with Juan Berrera, Henry Garcia, and Vitor Fiasca all contributing goals during the past five matches.
Here are the other Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 first-leg matchups:
Archaie FC (HAI) vs. Cruz Azul (MEX) (Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET)
CD Olimpia (HON) vs. Club America (MEX) (Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET)
CA Pantoja (DOM) vs. Monterrey (MEX) (Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET)