With its history in Concacaf Champions League — the post-2008 version, that is — defined by Liga MX’s pure dominance, the 2018 edition will be viewed as the one where the seal was finally broken for MLS.
Granted, when Chivas dropped Toronto 2-1 at BMO Field in the final’s first leg and took a 1-0 lead at Estadio Akron in the 19th minute in Leg 2, it would have been fair to think that it was effectively over. But a pair of goals for the Reds — Jozy Altidore in the 25th and Sebastian Giovinco not long before the halftime whistle — made it a brand-new series.
Toronto’s dreams of history, however, were left to be just that: dreams.
Tomorrow will mark 300 days since C.D. Guadalajara were crowned the top club in Concacaf for the first time since winning the then-Champions Cup in 1962. Thursday, when Atlanta United step on the pitch of the Rosabal Cordero to take on Costa Rican side Herediano, will mark 19 years and a month since the LA Galaxy became just the second — and most recent — MLS team to win the competition.
And it might be argued that the starpower on Atlanta United is as good as, if not better than, any club MLS has entered into the CCL. You don’t sign the reigning South American player of the year or drop $15 million on a teenager that just dominated on one of the sport’s biggest stages with the intent of simply winning your league year in and year out.
“I want us to be a team that not only everyone is talking about in America but also internationally,” Darren Eales told DSS back in 2015. “MLS is growing year by year, it is getting an international focus and it’ll be great if we can come in (and) have all these stories about a new team coming in with a big ticket base and with the players that we put together. And they are talking about it internationally.”
The first few steps have been accomplished: Atlanta United has the 10 most attended matches in league history across the regular season and playoffs, at times having the day’s highest-attended match globally. It made its mark on the global transfer market by selling Miguel Almiron to Newcastle United for just over $26 million, a league record. Barely a few months went by last season without an overseas publication proclaiming Atlanta’s ascension as a bonafide soccer market, verified by Forbes naming Atlanta United the most valuable club in MLS. Oh, and it won MLS Cup in only its second season.
Now the next challenge begins on Thursday. But how exactly has MLS done in the competition?
- Since the Champions League era began in 2008, at least one MLS team has reached the semifinals six times. Only three - Toronto FC last year, Montreal Impact in 2015 and Real Salt Lake in 2011 - have reached the final.
- The closest an MLS team got to winning it was in 2015: Montreal drew Club América 1-1 at Azteca in the first leg of the 2015 final and held a 1-0 lead in the 50th minute of the return leg at Olympic Stadium. But a four-goal second half that featured a Dario Benedetto hat trick and three goals scored in 17 minutes saw Las Águillas win their sixth continental crown. In 2011’s final, Real Salt Lake drew 2-2 away to Monterrey in Leg 1, but Monterrey’s goal just before the half in Utah lifted it to the first of three Champions League titles.
- Two MLS clubs — D.C. United and the L.A. Galaxy — have won Concacaf’s club competition, back when it was known as the Champions’ Cup. However, D.C.’s victory in 1998 predated the existence of the FIFA Club World Cup by two years, and while the Galaxy won the 2000 edition, the previous year’s Champions’ Cup winner (Necaxa) earned Concacaf’s berth in the inaugural tournament.
It might be worth talking about the FIFA Club World Cup at this point, a competition that in December featured the likes of Chivas and River Plate. A little club in Spain called Real Madrid, who has just come off its third win in a row and fourth overall, is the most frequent participant with five trips.
Atlanta United has already proven that it has ambitions to become a major player on the world soccer stage. With a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup up for grabs, its next, and so far biggest, step lies ahead.