James Vakilpour, Staff Writer
The Round of 16 of the 2022 Concacaf Champions League is here for five clubs from Major League Soccer (MLS) after a rushed preseason and shortened scrimmage schedule.
The CONCACAF Champions League, North and Central America's top continental soccer competition, is approaching. Thus, there is no better time to analyze the prospects of MLS teams in the big tournament.
Let's take a look at the league's participants since they qualified for the prestigious regional club competition, with the hopes of winning MLS and a long awaited Concacaf Champions League.
New York City FC (MLS Cup winner), New England Revolution (Supporters' Shield winner), CF Montréal (Canadian Championship winner), Colorado Rapids (Western Conference regular-season winner), and Seattle Sounders FC (next-best MLS regular-season record) are the five MLS teams competing, all based on their 2021 performances.
From Feb. 15-17, MLS teams will play on the road, while the second legs will take place at home from Feb. 22-24. It's the first stage toward the CCL's two-leg final, which will take place in late April and early May.
Let's start with the CONCACAF CL format, which is slightly different from the Union of European Football Association (UEFA) version. There are 16 teams in the current format, and there is no group stage. As the tournament progresses, the team with the better previous round result will have the advantage of hosting the next round's second leg. Every tie, including the final, is a two-legged contest.
Seattle Sounders FC vs. F.C. Motagua
The CONCACAF Champions League draw has dealt Seattle a mixed bag. While Motagua appears to be a good matchup on paper, the Sounders have struggled in Honduras in the past. Leo Chu, a new Brazilian signing to the Sounders who formerly played for Gremio as a forward in the Copa Sudamericana, may be able to assist in this tie.
Rubilio Castillo, one of Motagua's top goal scorers, has left the club after his loan agreement expired at the end of last season.
Seattle was assigned to the Honduran team for their Round of 16 encounter, which will be their seventh appearance in the CCL overall. Motagua was also eligible by virtue of their performance in the CONCACAF League last season, as they finished second to punch their ticket.
This is Motagua's first appearance in the CCL since being ousted in the Round of 16 in 2020, and Seattle could make a deep run if they want it badly enough.
Prominent departures for the Seattle Sounders include Nicolas Benezet, Brad Smith, Shane O'Neill, and prominent arrivals for the Sounders include Albert Rusnak, Sam Adeniran, Dylan Teves, and Leo Chu.
While the Rave Green have yet to reach a Champions League final, they have continuously incorporated Champions League competition into their vision of what it means to be the huge, ambitious, and successful club they strive to be. The stars may have aligned this year to give them their most realistic outlook in a long time.
GM and President of the Seattle Sounders FC, Garth Lagerwey, usually likes to do their big transfer shopping in the summer marketplace, and Seattle have often been notoriously slow starters in the spring. However, they've kept their major names this offseason, as well as striking new deals with some key squad players. It also turned out that their top reinforcement target, high-profile free agent Albert Rusnak, came from within MLS. Lagerwey is dreaming big after landing the former Real Salt Lake captain. “We feel really good about our group. We think that we're going to have a team that's going to be able to compete on all fronts,” said Lagerwey at Rusnak’s official introduction. “I think we're going to wind up with almost the entirety of the team from last year brought back on top of Albert being able to come and join us. I think that this is going to be one of the best teams we've had here.”
In the preseason, the Sounders have logged plenty of scrimmage minutes across numerous camp locations, and with so much consistency and success under Brian Schmetzer's leadership, the team should be able to shorten their learning and periodization curves in pursuit of CCL results. The fact that a team used to competing in the second round of the MLS Cup Playoffs was knocked out early last fall can only add to their collective hunger.
However, there are still concerns and questions. After an injury-plagued 2021, what does longstanding linchpin Nicolas Lodeiro have left in the tank? Will the rest of their core be able to fend off the effects of aging as well? Are the kids at the core of Seattle's academy-driven youth movement ready to take on more responsibility? On the surface, they appear to be Major League Soccer's finest and brightest hope. Motagua players to watch for include Marcelo Pereira; the squad’s backline is anchored by him. The 26-year-old center back, who has 22 Honduran caps, was chosen to the CONCACAF League Team of the Tournament for 2021. Omar Elvir, Motagua's midfielder, has made over 300 games for the storied club and received a few international appearances for Los Catrachos. Lastly, Roberto Moreira is a Paraguayan veteran striker who is perhaps Motagua's most dangerous goal threat. When to watch: Leg 1: Feb. 17 | 10 PM ET at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano. Leg 2: Feb 24 | 10:30 PM ET at Lumen Field. Colorado Rapids vs. Comunicaciones F.C.
Colorado is the only American team in the tournament that does not have a direct connection to either coast. This necessitates substantial travel for both themselves and visiting teams.
Colorado's continental campaign begins in Guatemala, with the goal of making it through the first round for the first time.
Comunicaciones F.C., one of Guatemala's most historic clubs, is making its seventh CCL appearance and first since 2020. Comunicaciones qualified by winning the CONCACAF League last season and defeating Motagua in a controversial two-leg final, setting up a Round of 16 match against Colorado.
Given that the squad won the CONCACAF League last season, the confederation's equivalent of the Europa League, these guys are not to be taken lightly.
The Rapids have had a tumultuous winter as they tried to correct their flaws without upsetting the egalitarian ethos that helped them become the West's best regular-season team in 2021. On January 25, at a coach's press conference to start off the Desert Showcase, head coach Robin Fraser expressed optimism about the team's ability to hit the ground running.
“This year feels like our starting point is ahead of where it's been. When you have a new team, and you're trying to implement new ideas, new principles, you're really starting from scratch and it's a lot of repetition of very basic things,” he said. “This is the first year that I felt like we’ve kind of jumped in where we left off last year…it's actually nice to start in a position where we're really concentrating on details more than actual principles and basics from the very beginning.”
Last year's goals-by-committee strategy left them high and dry in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, so boosting the offense is a primary priority. However, the majority of the action has taken place in midfield and defense so far. Auston Trusty, a center back, will join Arsenal in July but will remain on loan for the CCL season.
After contract renewal talks fell through, the prominent Kellyn Acosta was unceremoniously moved to LAFC. In his place, another ex-FC Dallas central midfielder with the same last name arrived via the Re-Entry Draft: Bryan Acosta, a Honduran international who did not quite live up to expectations in Texas but who Colorado hoped would fit into their "revitalize distressed assets" strategy. Max Alves, a young Brazilian center midfielder, was also signed through the U22 Initiative for a cost that might reach $1 million based on performance clauses, indicating the club's high appreciation for his potential.
They have yet to land the elite No. 9 they claim they desire and require. However, unlike their previous CCL campaign, when then-incoming coach Anthony Hudson dismissed a first-round loss to Toronto FC as "preseason" that came a distant second to their league schedule, the Rapids insist they are all in this spring.
“It’s hugely exciting,” executive VP and general manager Padraig Smith told reporters last month. “We’ll certainly be taking it seriously…we certainly look at this as an important competition.” Although promising, the final-third finishing remains a problem.
Prominent departures include Kellyn Acosta, Younes Namli, Dominique Badji, and prominent arrivals include Bryan Acosta, Abobacar Keita, and Max Alves.
Comunicaciones players to watch for include Juan Luis Anangonó, an Ecuadorian striker who scored six goals to lead his team to victory in the SCL, earning the Golden Ball and Golden Boot titles. Anangonó was a Designated Player for the Chicago Fire FC in the past. Nicolás Samayoa, a Los Cremas' center defender, is a former New England Revolution SuperDraft selection (fourth round, 2018). José Manuel Contreras, a Guatemalan international who has earned 80 caps for his country. After a spell with Liga Nacional side Antigua, the 36-year-old is back at Comunicaciones for his second stint. When to watch: Leg 1: Feb. 17 | 7 pm ET at Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores.
Leg 2: Feb. 23 | 8:30 pm ET at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
New England Revolution vs. Cavaly AS
New England's CONCACAF CL draw may have been the most favorable, since it will face the unfancied Cavaly of the Haitian league. Cavaly qualified for the tournament after winning the Caribbean Club championship the previous season.
The Revs are headed by Bruce Arena, one of only two MLS coaches to have ever won CONCACAF's top club competition. (However, it was so long ago that it seemed to happen in another century, with a different name and structure than it does now: Arena led D.C. United to the 1998 CONCACAF Champions Cup, which was held solely at their RFK Stadium home for a week in August.) Will the veteran coach go all-out this year to win one of the few honors that have eluded him, with last year's Supporters' Shield winners in CCL?
The Revolution may have a new logo for the season, but they have retained Bruce Arena as their head coach. The legendary American won the championship with DC in 1998, but has not been to the final since. On the continent, he has enjoyed success, winning three Gold Cups with the national team.
With Adam Buksa and Carles Gil in the engine room, the team has the necessary ambition and skill to succeed. The club has a 19-point lead over the second-placed Philadelphia Union thanks to a strong 2021 in the Eastern Conference. Can the Supporters Shield champions extend their dominance to the continent?
The Haitian team is making their first-ever CONCACAF Champions League debut, which they earned by defeating Inter Moengo Tapoe of Suriname in the 2021 CONCACAF Caribbean Club Championship.
Cavaly is one of 18 clubs in Haiti's Ligue Hatienne, and they have one league title to their name. They are the fifth Haitian team to compete in the CCL.
Although Tajon Buchanan's speed and flair will be missed, there are some encouraging early indicators. New England has added versatile midfielder Sebastian Lletget to an already strong group, and they are going to welcome the 2018 CCL runner-up Jozy Altidore since the gifted but injury-prone striker agreed to a buyout from Toronto FC. Star goalkeeper Matt Turner is on his way to English giants Arsenal, but not until the summer, so he will be available for the CCL run.
In their first-round clash, the Revs were considered overwhelming favorites to beat Caribbean champs Cavaly AS. They then learned that they'll be hosting both legs of the series at Gillette Stadium "due to the extremely challenging safety and security situation in Haiti '' according to CONCACAF, which has postponed all official competitive matches in the country plagued by insecurity. However, if things go as planned, things will become much more difficult. Arena and his teammates would face the winner of the Saprissa-UNAM Pumas matchup in the quarterfinals in mid-March, and New England Revolution, too, have Santos Laguna and Cruz Azul on their side of the bracket. Given the danger that their Designated Player trio of Carles Gil, Adam Buksa, and former Tijuana striker Gustavo Bou can provide, the Revolution can go toe-to-toe with Liga MX opposition at their best. It will be tough, though, to achieve full match fitness and sharpness in time for the CCL's second round. Their team is cautiously optimistic, with potential for a real push.
Prominent departures include Tajon Buchanan, Teal Bunbury, Scott Caldwell, and prominent arrivals include Sebastian Lletget, Omar Gonzalez, and possibly Jozy Altidore.
Cavaly players to watch for include Emmanuel Saint-Felix. The 27-year-old, who was voted Golden Glove winner of the Caribbean Club Championship as the competition's outstanding goalkeeper, is sure to be busy in the Cavaly net. Roody Joseph, if he can maintain his Caribbean Club Championship form, might provide a surprise threat to New England's defensive line. Dutherson Clerveaux, Cavaly's center midfielder is a rock in central park, establishing the pace and linking passes together. Emerson Tibert, the defender, fits a similar description.
When to watch: Leg 1: Feb. 15 | 8 PM ET at Estadio Nacional. Leg 2: Feb. 23 | 6 PM ET at Banc of California Stadium.
New York City FC vs Santos de Guapiles F.C.
So, how about the champions of Major League Soccer in 2021? Ronny Deila led the squad to an MLS Cup victory on penalties, and the prize is...a trip to Costa Rica. The Pigeons will have a unique experience in the away tie, as the 3,000-seat Estadio Ebal Rodrguez will be considerably different from the Yankee Stadium they are used to.
However, they will be completely out of sorts on the return leg. New York will play that game at Banc of California Stadium due to many constraints and the confederation's refusal to approve their regular site for use. Last season's MLS top scorer, Valentin “Taty” Castellanos, will welcome the new challenges after demonstrating his versatility with 19 goals.
So far, the defending MLS Cup champions have stated nothing but positive things about the CCL, which they experienced briefly in 2020. During last year's playoff run, head coach Ronny Deila remarked enthusiastically about "play[ing] teams now in the highest level” and how “when you play internationally you develop yourself more."
Given this, the fact that their roster turnover has been minimal this winter is reassuring. Taty Castellanos, the MLS Golden Boot winner, is still wearing Cityzen blue despite international interest in his 2021 season. He appears to be keen for a move to Europe at the moment, but that will not happen until the summer transfer window, which should make him hungry for Champions League glory rather than disgruntled for City.
The losses of quiet key contributors James Sands and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, as well as the ongoing ramifications of NYCFC's stadium dilemma, are less encouraging.
The only CONCACAF-approved stadium in the New York area is Red Bull Arena, which will be unavailable for at least City's first-round CCL match. So the champions are relocating to Los Angeles, where they will face Costa Rican opponents at LAFC's Banc of California Stadium on February 23 and then stay in town for their Major League Soccer debut against the LA Galaxy the following weekend. If they get through Santos de Guapiles in the quarterfinals, where will they play their home leg? That will have to wait and see.
It is far from ideal, but it is nothing new for a club that adapted admirably to it on their way to winning the MLS Cup last season. Their starting XI is also expected to change in 2022, with Brazilians Thiago Andrade and Talles Magno due to take on larger roles, and regulars Anton Tinnerholm and Keaton Parks ready to return from long-term injuries. Another intriguing subplot in camp is if Gedion Zelalem's preseason minutes are a hint of a resurgent career for the injury-plagued midfielder.
They have also filled the defensive void left by Sands, with Brazilian center back Thiago Martins joining as a Designated Player from Yokohama F. Marinos in Japan. He is a pacy and assured defender who should fit in well with Deila's style, according to all accounts, and is a result of City Football Group's scouting infrastructure identifying plug-and-play replacements. Along with Peruvian international Alexander Callens and Luxembourg international Maxime Chanot, he gives them another option.
NYC's ball-dominant possession strategy may help them manage CCL games where they must dig out results when they aren't at full condition, and the bracket has been kind to them thus far. A quarterfinal matchup with Colorado, on the other hand, could be more of a slugfest than it appears at first appearance. They could make a deep run if they want it badly enough.
Costa Rica's CCL debutants, who face defending MLS Cup champions NYCFC, qualified for the 2021 CONCACAF League as the second best-ranked losing quarterfinalist. They're coming off a second-place finish in Costa Rica's Primera División Clausura division in 2021. The Santos de Guápiles are the ninth Costa Rican team to compete in the CCL.
The Santos de Guápiles are the ninth Costa Rican team to compete in the CCL.
Prominent departures include James Sands, Jesus Medina, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, and a prominent arrival includes Thiago Martins.
Santos de Guapiles players to watch for include Osvaldo Rodriguez for Rojiblancos. He wears the captain's armband and was named to the 2021 Concacaf League Team of the Tournament. In the competition, the 31-year-old midfielder scored two goals and added three assists. Kevin Ruiz, since his move from fellow Costa Rican top-flight side Municipal Grecia, the veteran goalie has been unmovable. Juan Diego Madrigal, a crucial part of Santos' spine, has been a pillar along their backline for the past half-decade.
When to watch: Leg 1: Feb. 15 | 6 PM ET at Gillette Stadium. Leg 2: Feb. 22 | 6 PM ET at Gillette Stadium.
CF Montreal vs Santos Laguna
A CONCACAF CL preview would be incomplete without a look at the Canadian contingent. Montreal had a long journey to Torreon for their match. If the team has any energy left after the 10-hour travel, they just have to face Santos Laguna, the six-time Liga MX winners.
Montreal will be seeking to repeat its 2015 performance, which saw the team reach the final. Mexican teams usually like this battle and will make it difficult for Montreal. Mexico has won the CONCACAF Champions League 13 times with seven different clubs.
Montréal's Round of 16 opponent was the Torneo Guardianes runner-up in 2021 and is one of the more experienced teams in this year's league, having appeared in seven CCL games since their debut in 2008-09. Santos Laguna is making its first CCL play since reaching the semifinals in 2019.
Santos was also the runner-up in the event in 2011-12 and 2012-13. They have the most goals in the competition's history, with 140 goals scored in 58 games, and have been dominant at home, with a 19-game home unbeaten streak heading into this year's campaign.
Few MLS clubs have excelled in the CCL over the years like Montréal, who was one of only four league members to reach the tournament's modern-day final courtesy to a Cinderella run in 2015. This time, though, the Canadian Championship winners have been dealt a cruel draw. In the first round, they'll face Santos, one of Liga MX's best-run clubs, and if they survive that, they'll face Cruz Azul and Pumas UNAM on the other side of the bracket.’
Nonetheless, after taking over from Thierry Henry, head coach Wilfried Nancy's work has impressed, with shrewd intra-MLS acquisitions like Djordje Mihailovic, Romell Quioto, and Mason Toye flourishing in his transition-oriented style. After spending $1 million in Allocation Money to sign highly versatile defender Alistair Johnston from Nashville SC, Montréal is confident that he will soon join that list.
Nancy told MLSsoccer.com in a media teleconference at the start of their preseason last month, “We have a really good player – Canadian good player, Alistair Johnston, so I'm happy about the squad for the moment,” she continued: “Our job is to find a way to play the Champions League and to go as far as we can and at the same time, start and to do well [in the league] because this is a new season in MLS.”
"Real Gs move in silence like lasagna," wrote a great poet, and we'll apply that to CFM in honor of their Italian sibling club Bologna. With sporting director Olivier Renard steadily building the team across numerous windows, their purchases tend to slip under the radar, and their style may help them sponge up pressure and flourish against the ball in CCL. Bologna defender Gabriele Corbo, a former Italian youth international, is an intriguing loan arrival from the Serie A club. They face formidable obstacles, but have a Cinderella-like tactical vision.
Santos Laguna players to watch for include Fernando Gorriaran, after making his debut in a World Cup qualifier against Venezuela in June, Gorriarán has earned four caps for Uruguay. Santos Laguna's midfielder is consistently one of the team's most threatening players. Carlos Acevedo, rising Mexican international goalkeeper who grew up in Santos Laguna's academy system before establishing himself as the club's No. 1 goalkeeper, and finally Dória Santos, Laguna's defensive commander, this 27-year-old Brazilian center defender arrived several years ago with experience from Marseille (France's Ligue 1) and Botafogo (Brazil's Serie A).