Major League Soccer's growth has been clear to see over the course of the past decade, with rapid expansion and the continued improvement of the talent pool. But one measuring stick used to gauge the league's quality has continued to prove unflattering.
The Concacaf Champions League is the long-standing obstacle standing in the way of MLS attaining the international respect it craves. For the past two decades, MLS has been dominated by Liga MX in Concacaf club competitions, first in the old Concacaf Champions Cup, and over the past decade in the CCL. No MLS team has lifted Concacaf hardware in 19 years, and only three MLS teams have even reached the final in the decade since Concacaf changed to a Champions League format.
MLS has managed to close the gap with Liga MX, delivering stronger challenges to the Mexican teams, but winning the tournament has eluded MLS teams, most recently in 2018 when Toronto FC came within a penalty shootout of winning the title.
This year, MLS is sending a strong contingent of contenders to try and secure that first CCL trophy, led by reigning MLS Cup champions Atlanta United and Supporters' Shield winners New York Red Bulls. The path to that first title will be difficult for both Eastern Conference powers though, with Atlanta United likely to face Liga MX leaders Monterrey in the quarterfinals and the Red Bulls positioned to take on Santos Laguna if they can dispose of Dominican side Atletico Pantoja.
Making those challenges even more difficult for the MLS contingent is the reality that Mexican teams are seven matches into their new season while MLS teams are still in preseason, a handicap that MLS teams have always had to deal with in the CCL knockout rounds.
"I can see why MLS teams have had difficulty in this tournament, and that's without even having kicked a ball yet," Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst told Goal. "It's a quick turnaround from MLS Cup. It's a balance between getting fit versus not wanting to be too sore, too overworked like you usually are in preseason because the games come up very quick.
"Basically if you get any type of injury in preseason you're going to miss games. Knowing our fitness needs to be tip top before the season even starts is a challenge as well, but we understand there's pressure on us as MLS Cup champions to go out there and represent the league well."
As difficult as the challenge will be for all five MLS teams competing in the CCL round of 16, which kicks off on Tuesday, there is a sense that the gap between MLS teams and Mexican teams has been closing. The Red Bulls firmly believe that, having eliminated Club Tijuana in last year's quarterfinals before losing to eventual champions Chivas Guadalajara in a tightly contested semifinal series.
"The biggest takeaway from last year is that we have the confidence to compete with anybody," Red Bulls midfielder Sean Davis told Goal. "We have some really important experiences under our belt. You can talk about the Tijuana series, and the Chivas series, where we more than held our own. We are confident about who we are as a team, and that we can compete with the top Mexican teams."
"It's a tournament that we take seriously, but as far as we got last year and as close as we were to making it to the finals, I think it makes it that much more special and real that we want to duplicate that," Red Bulls defender Aaron Long told Goal. "I think that experience is going to help us in a big way."
Sporting Kansas City is the lone MLS team set to face a Mexican opponent in the round of 16, and will be taking on struggling Toluca, which is winless in five straight matches. A win over Toluca could set up Sporting KC with a quarterfinal matchup against Toronto FC, a team that came close to winning CCL a year ago, but comes into this year's competition as an underdog after enduring a nightmare 2018 MLS campaign and then losing star performer Sebastian Giovinco.
The Houston Dynamo are the biggest underdog of the five MLS teams in the competition, having qualified for the tournament by virtue of their U.S. Open Cup championship. The Dynamo failed to make the MLS playoffs in 2018, but do boast enough firepower to be favored over Guatemalan side C.D. Guastatoya in the round of 16. A potential quarterfinal against Mexican powerhouse Tigres would be another challenge altogether.
Like the Dynamo, the Red Bulls and TFC both face unfancied opponents in the round of 16. The Red Bulls meet Dominican side Atlético Pantoja while TFC takes on Panamanian side Independiente. Atlanta United has a tricky test against reigning Costa Rican champions Herediano, a club that should present a good challenge but one that also saw several top players leave after the team won the Costa Rican league in December.
If MLS is going to break the Liga MX stranglehold on the Concacaf Champions League, it will be up to Atlanta United or the Red Bulls, and potentially dark horse pick Sporting KC, to not only make a deep run, but also handle the pressure of a final that will have the hopes of an entire league riding on it.
"When we were watching Champions League in previous years, last year included, you're rooting for the other MLS teams to do well," Parkhurst said. "You want somebody to win that championship and go represent the league. Hopefully we've got the opportunity to make a good run and be that team this year."