The 2018 edition of the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) starts this week. The tournament includes the best club teams from across North and Central America and the Caribbean, including five from MLS (four American, one Canadian) and four from Liga MX in Mexico. The two favorites — Toronto FC and Tigres UANL — are similar in a number of ways and both have something to prove.
Tigres, the Mexican champions, have lost in each of the past two CCL finals. Tigres, based at a university in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, was an also-ran for most of its existence until coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti was hired in 2010.
Along with his penchant for attracting expensive talent from outside Mexico, Ferretti’s expertise has built Tigres into the team of the 2010s in Mexico.
The club has won three of the past five half-season titles, led by French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac, one of the few European players to truly thrive in the league.
Tigres’ success has them rivaling the traditional Big Four in Mexico of Chivas and the three Mexico City teams, especially Club América. Now, the team needs international glory to complete its trophy case and compete with crosstown rivals Monterrey CF, three-time winners of the Champions League.
Toronto FC is also battling uphill against history. The club was a remarkable disaster for most of its first decade. After joining MLS in 2007, it took the team until 2015 to even make the playoffs. New management, and the arrival of Italian star Sebastian Giovinco in 2016, was enough to push the club from doormats to champions.
After losing in the MLS Cup final in 2016, Toronto responded by sweeping the available trophies in 2017, taking home the MLS Cup, the MLS Supporters’ Shield and the Canadian Championship. Canada’s best team is now playing for an unprecedented quadruple title and the honor of MLS, which has made an annual tradition of getting stomped by Mexican teams in the Champions League.
A new Champions League format likely works in the favor of all five MLS entrants, including Seattle, Dallas, Colorado, and the New York Red Bulls. Instead of being dumped into quarterfinal matchups before the MLS season even begins, this year the clubs begin with the round of 16. Each MLS club — with the exception of Colorado, which has to play Toronto — is favored to advance to the quarterfinals. MLS will be hoping that the extra weeks give its clubs a chance to catch up with other teams, most of which are already in midseason.
Mexico, though, will still be the biggest impediment. América seems to have finally found its groove after several years of struggles. Though Chivas and Tijuana have endured up-and-down years, both will be confident when MLS teams come to town. Tigres, though, remains the best Mexican bet.
• Minnesota’s Kassey Kallman isn’t retiring from soccer, but she’s not playing in the National Women’s Soccer League this year. The 25-year-old, who has been a defensive linchpin for several NWSL teams, wrote in a post on Instagram that she was open to returning to soccer but was planning to leave the Washington Spirit to move to Denver this year to be with her fiancé, Colorado Rapids defender and fellow Woodbury native Eric Miller.
• The new U.S. Soccer president is Carlos Cordeiro, who has served for more than a decade on the organization’s board of directors. It was a surprise to see Cordeiro win out over Kathy Carter, the establishment’s pick. Cordeiro can’t be said to represent the major change that many fans were hoping for.
• MLS announced that its out-of-market subscription service would become part of ESPN Plus, which will launch this spring. It’s a good deal for MLS fans, who will pay less than they did for MLS Live and get other ESPN programming with their subscription. Until the service launches, out-of-market MLS games will be free to watch.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Preseason friendly: Minnesota United at Charleston, 6 p.m. Saturday, beIN. Spring training baseball games are coming soon, but spring training soccer is already here, as the Loons take the field in a preseason tournament with the USL’s Charleston Battery and MLS teams Columbus and Atlanta. See new-look United and how they’re looking for 2018.
Serie A: Juventus at Torino, 5:30 a.m. Sunday, beIN. Yes, it’s an impossibly early start, but the ill-tempered nature of the Turin derby might be worth an extra cup of coffee. Juventus is the rich-man’s club, Torino the working-class team. It’s been all Juventus for decades, though. Torino has just one win in the rivalry since 1995.
Serie A: SPAL at Napoli, 8 a.m. Sunday, beIN. Napoli clearly doesn’t care about the Europa League — a deliberately weakened team lost 3-1 at home to RB Leipzig on Thursday — and has thrown all of its weight behind the push for the Serie A title. Eight consecutive league victories have kept Napoli on top. A visit from struggling SPAL is the next challenge.
FA Cup: Tottenham at Rochdale, 10 a.m. Sunday, FS1. Tottenham’s tour of Europe continues. In midweek, it was a visit to Juventus. Now, it’s a trip to third-division Rochdale, the second round of the FA Cup in a row in which Spurs have made a trip to a tiny stadium to take on lower-division opposition. Is there an upset coming?