CCL draw produces enticing matchups, but question same as always

Orlando Ramirez
Mexico's continued domination remains the big story for the region's premier club tournament

The Concacaf Champions League draw was a success. It started on time, ended early and didn't involve any mysognistic comments or songs and dances like ceremonies that dominated the headlines earlier Monday.

With Concacaf legends Blas Perez and Moises Munoz picking teams out of pots and creating matchups, the competition started to take shape and it's looking like it could be another fantastic tournament.

Last year's switch to a tournament with no group stage and fewer teams from outside the confederation's best leagues resulted in a roaring success. It was the best CCL on the field and the most widely discussed off it.

This year could be no different. A potential matchup between Atlanta United and Monterrey looks like the juiciest of potential quarterfinals, but that means Rayados have to get past red-hot Alianza. The Salvadoran champions are on a roll, and Monterrey slipped up against Arabe Unido in the previous edition of the tournament. Atlanta United needs to top Herediano, another team finding its form with current (and former) manager Hernan Medford looking to win another continental title after lifting the trophy with Saprissa in 2005, before the CCL era.

Sporting Kansas City could meet Toronto FC in the quarterfinals, but has a spectacular matchup before then against Toluca in a tie both teams will feel like they can win. While the knockout round will produce fun soccer and plenty of drama, the CCL still ultimately comes down to one question: Can someone outside of Liga MX win it?

"We’re hoping it’s the year. That’s for sure. I think the gap is getting closer and closer, and I think an MLS team is getting close to winning this thing," Houston Dynamo assistant Davy Arnaud told Goal on Monday. "We’re set up in a good way. I think we have a good mix on our roster."

Toronto FC may have set out the blueprint last season with its star-studded squad and commitment to the Champions League. For Perez, who attempted to slay giants with FC Dallas and Arabe Unido during his playing career, the key is focus.

"I think the MLS teams have been really close to lifting the trophy, you look at Toronto," he said. "I think more than anything they have to focus and set the goal on winning the competition because sometimes teams are strong in the league or the cup but they don’t put as much importance on this competition. The trips make things tough, the physical demands on players make things difficult. I think more than anything keeping in mind those types of logistics."

That could be tough even for Toronto to do, though. Last season's CCL run was phenomenal, but it may have cost the Reds success during the MLS season. Injuries hit Greg Vanney's side hard, and the club missed the playoffs a year after winning MLS Cup, the Canadian Championship and the Supporters' Shield in the same season.

TFC came agonizingly close to becoming the first MLS team to lift the trophy and head to the Club World Cup, falling to Chivas on a penalty shootout in the final. It was the end of a rough road that saw TFC triumph over a Tigres team fresh off the Mexican title after getting past a MLS rival in the round of 16. But rather than repeat last year's preseason preparation which involved trips to Mexico for high-intensity friendly matches against Liga MX teams, things might change.

"I think there are certainly things we’ll take away from last year that we’ll continue to do, and I think we’ll make some adjustments based on different things, various conditions," TFC assistant Robin Fraser said. "There are so many variables to preparing for competitions like this depending on where we’re playing, where we’re doing preseason, where our first opponent is and how that sets up. We’ll go back and look at it now and make the adjustments we think are going to be necessary."

This year's crop of Mexican clubs, like every year's, looks strong; however, three of the four clubs were knocked out of the Liga MX playoffs this weekend with only Monterrey making the semifinals. Medford coached the last team to beat a Mexican club and said that while taking down Mexico won't be easy the time could be right.

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"We’re looking for Costa Rica to once again have the Concacaf champion. It’s not easy, but it’s also not impossible," he said.

"What's the key? A bit of luck? "No, it’s not luck," Medford continued. "Only three teams in Concacaf have finished third in the world. One was my team when I managed Saprissa in 2005. After that Monterrey and Pachuca. Has it been tough for us to get back to being champions? Yes, it’s been tough. The last champions have all been Mexican. But we’re here to change history, and the idea is to be able to change it at this stage."

That's the idea, but until the team actually is able to do it, it will always be the question hanging over Concacaf's most prestigious club tournament. This could be the year - but then again it could've been last year and the year before and the year before, but it wasn't.

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