There are many moments in MLS history that fans can look back on and say the league has arrived on the world stage. There are All-Star victories over top clubs, the success of players with MLS experience in Europe like Clint Dempsey, and of course designated players David Beckham and Thierry Henry. However, even with all of those markers, it was arguably Real Salt Lake’s trip to the CONCACAF Champion’s League final that truly signaled MLS as a growing power.
Real Salt Lake’s near-win indicated a change in priorities for some MLS clubs. No longer were teams satisfied by just winning the league or making the playoffs, now the top teams wanted to show that they could beat any team in the region. Even though MLS teams have continually come up short, they have shown consistent improvement. Could this finally be the year that an MLS team breaks through? Let’s look at each MLS team in the tournament and assess their chances.
Group A Opponents: Santos Laguna (Mexico), Aguila (El Salvador)
Okay, okay, the snickering can stop. Even though Toronto FC have been a train-wreck for the past two seasons, it seems that Paul Mariner has begun to steady things in Canada. Losing team MVP Danny Koevermans will hurt, but Mariner made a big trade for Eric Hassli. If Toronto are going to have any chance of knocking off Santos Laguna or Aguila, they are going to need big output from Hassli and Jamaican international Ryan Johnson. That output is mostly needed because their defense is wretched. Things have been better as of late, but they will have to be almost miraculous if they are going to stop Santo’s high powered offense led in part by U.S. national team star Herculez Gomez.
Still, there is good news for Toronto. They have been playing better lately and they have plenty of international experience, especially in CONCACAF. With this new format, all it will take is winning at home and achieving some surprising results on the road. It’s possible, but in the end it will be difficult for Toronto to stop the Santos juggernaut.
Real Salt Lake
Group B Opponents: Herediano (Costa Rica), Tauro (Panama)
The boys from Salt Lake are the first MLS team to start their Champion’s League campaign when they take on Herediano tonight. The mood around the team is one of unfinished business. Losing to Monterrey in that heartbreaking final match at home was not the way they envisioned finishing the tournament, and they are desperate to be the first American team to lift the CCL trophy. Only Andy Williams, Robbie Russell, and Arturo Alvarez are missing from that finals team, so they have plenty of returning experience. Jason Kreis and his staff have been meticulously planning for the match against Herediano, leaving Jamison Olave, Chris Wingert, and Ned Grabavoy out of the starting lineup in last Saturday’s victory over Vancouver. Additionally, after a period of injuries to several starters, the team finally appears to have their first choice lineup available. That should really help bolster the defense and put the focus on Alavro Sabario, who has been on an absolute tear as of late.
Fortunately for the Salt Lake, their toughest opponent in the group, Herediano, has been transformed since qualifying for the tournament last year. Financial trouble has meant that they have had to sell off some of their top players. Still, any team from Costa Rica is going to be dangerous. Tauro should be athletic and very difficult to break down at home. Salt Lake should be able to rely on their experience and skill and advance from the group.
Group 3 Opponents: Olimpia (Honduras), FAS (El Salvador)
With all the attention focused on the bigger name teams in MLS, the Houston Dynamo have quietly put together another excellent season under head coach Dominic Kinnear. Bolstered by solid pickups, like designated player Oscar Boniek Garcia (picked up from Olimpia of all teams), the Dynamo will be looking to CONCACAF to validate their success. Their opponents will be very tough. Olimpia is a solid team with familiar face Luciano Emilio among their ranks. Picking up a result in Honduras will be the most difficult task for the Dynamo, but should they do that, they should be favorites to advance from the group. Having the new BBVA Compass Stadium will also provide an intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams.
Group 4 Opponents: Marathon (Honduras), Caledonia AIA (Trinidad and Tobago)
The Sounders should have not trouble advancing from their group, if they don’t succumb to their own worst nightmare: themselves. The Sounders too often have a tendency to either enter big matches with too much pressure or too much relaxation. Last year they picked up a big win down in Mexico, but then were also blown at at home. Falling behind in league play with a poor stretch won’t help things either. Head coach Sigi Schmid is going to have to decide how much emphasis to place on the tournament. The depth for the Sounders just isn’t there this year, and they can’t ride their starters too hard or else they will run out of gas in the playoffs once again. A reduced schedule will make things easier this year, but they are still going to have to work for it. In the end, the Sounders will probably advance, but not without giving their fans heartburn.
Group 5 Opponents: Isdro Metapan (El Salvador), Puerto Rico Islanders
The biggest question for the Galaxy and head coach Bruce Arena will be whether or not to take this tournament seriously. Sure, the Galaxy did advance to the quarterfinals this last spring, but were then upset by a Toronto team that went on to set a record for losses. David Beckham’s globe trotting isn’t going to help either when considering what kind of team to put out for these matches. Fortunately for the Galaxy, their opponents shouldn’t pose a problem for them. Metapan can be very dangerous and the Islanders have beaten the Galaxy before. Still, even if the Galaxy don’t put their heart into the tournament, they will still likely advance the way they are playing right now.
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