The Champions League
MLS is five for five
More success awaits
CONCACAF Champions League is back, baby! This past week saw the first round of the group stages take place in the 16 team tournament. Each group contains 4 teams, and the top two will advance. Seeding is such that no team from the same country is in the same group, although Canadian and American MLS squads can be (as is the case in Group C with Dallas and Toronto). The tournament has been steadily gaining in importance in North America, and its winner earns a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup. In last year’s tournament, Real Salt Lake made it all the way to the final, taking an important step for MLS internationally. Can the American/Canadian league go further this year?
In any tournament format, it’s always impossible to say, but MLS is off to a flying start after going 5-0-0 in the first round. The format of home and away pairings means each team still has five more matches, so qualification for any club is far from assured. Fortunately, MLS sides are at peak condition being in the middle of their season, while clubs from other countries are still gaining match fitness as their leagues start up. However, the situation will be reversed for the knock-out stages next spring. This makes it important for MLS to get as many teams as possible through the first round.
Of all the wins earned by the MLS teams, there is one clear standout: FC Dallas’ win over Pumas in Mexico City. This marked the first victory ever for an MLS team on Mexican soil in 25 tries. Not only are Pumas one of the top Mexican clubs, but they play in the altitude and smog of Mexico City which gives the US national team so much trouble. While Pumas elected to rest many of their starters in favor of a younger side, after the first 15 minutes Dallas played at a level as high as their competition. Overall, FC Dallas has had an impressive run this season despite the loss of the last year’s MVP, David Ferreira, early in the campaign. Now, having gotten the most difficult match out of the way in the CONCACAF Champions League, they are in good shape to be playing deep into that tournament. The Power Rank can give us some insight about their chances, as well as the other MLS teams.
While The Power Rank doesn’t track foreign soccer leagues (yet!), even if it did, the Mexican and Central American leagues are only just starting so it would need to rely on last season’s data. In addition, it is difficult to compare across different leagues; enough data for a meaningful comparison wouldn’t exist until after the group stages. However, The Power Rank shows that MLS is contributing some of its top sides to the Champions League, with three of the top four (#1 LA, #2 Seattle, and #4 Dallas), and four of the top six (#6 Colorado). The final slot is the Canadian team Toronto FC, which currently resides in the rank’s basement. Of these teams, Seattle and Dallas have a great chance to go deep into the tournament. Both should be able to best the non-Mexican teams in their group, and can expect reinforcements later this year or early next spring for the knock-out stages in the forms of David Ferreira and Steve Zakuani. Additionally, both are young sides, which will hopefully help them recover full fitness earlier in spring should they make it out of the group stages. While LA is clearly the best team in MLS right now and should emerge from their group, question marks surrounding the return of David Beckham and Landon Donovan make it harder to tell how far this older team can go. As for Toronto, well, miracles can happen, even in Canada.