"You've got to see these games Wednesday night."
That's what the CONCACAF Champions League has needed people to say since the Champions Cup was rebooted a decade a go. It's how the tournament needs people to talk if it's ever going to get anywhere near the level of the UEFA Champions League or even the Copa Libertadores any time in the semi-near future.
There have been good games. There have been interesting finals. There have been upsets. But with the reigning champions of each league meeting in one series and the two previous champions in the other, it's true.
You've got to see these games Wednesday night.
The latest in a long line of format modifications has done what it was supposed to do (now can we please stick with it for more than two years). We have the most exciting matchups, and they matter quickly. There still was a place for a Central American team toppling a bigger club with Tauro knocking FC Dallas out of the competition last week. Now it's time for marquee matchups between Liga MX teams, which have won every edition of the competition in the modern era, and upwardly mobile MLS sides.
Spare a thought for CONCACAF (and, look, we get why you normally don't do that). The confederation has tried plenty of things to generate more interest for its premier club tournament. It has listened to input from league officials, from coach, from players, from fans. What's lacking is this tournament being competitive. Specifically, what's missing is MLS teams being competitive, not once, not twice but consistently.
This could be the year things change. The New York Red Bulls got the league off to a great start in Tuesday's 2-0 victory over Club Tijuana in Estadio Caliente. You could call the performance unconvincing, but I was plenty convinced. Convinced that Bradley Wright-Phillips can find goals against one of Liga MX's staunchest back lines, that Luis Robles was superhuman and that Jesse Marsch knew exactly what he was doing.
MLS managers haven't always seemed to understand what it will take to beat Mexican teams, even when other clubs have put up blazes along the trail. The group of MLS coaches who remain in the tournament are avoiding the same mistakes.
Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney took his team to Mexico during the preseason, playing friendly games against teams like current CCL favorite Club America.
“From the quality standpoint and the vision of how we want to play, our thought is that we've closed the gap," between MLS and Mexico, Vanney said in his prematch news conference. "We have every opportunity to win this game.”
Seattle Sounders boss Brian Schmetzer made seven changes from his CCL round of 16 lineup to his MLS opener, resting Clint Dempsey and Chad Marshall against LAFC and preparing a halftime swap of Roman Torres for Magnus Wolff Eikrem to keep both fresh.
Chivas' defense has been a mess in 2018 with injuries hitting the club at center back but off-field circumstances like a contract dispute with Oswaldo Alanis and suspending Hedgardo Marin for off-field issues also have taken a toll. If Alanis and Carlos Salcido are the center backs, the Sounders will have plenty of chances to build an advantage.
“Offensively, we have to make them defend,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan told reporters. “They’re away from home, they have to feel that they are away from home. Sometimes Mexican sides come in and play just as well as if they were in Mexico. They have to feel like they’re in Seattle and we’re going to take the game to them."
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Both MLS teams in action Wednesday have the curse of heading to Mexico for a second leg. There hasn't been a shortage of MLS teams who get a good result and head south feeling positive only to be choked up by the altitude, atmosphere, both or sometimes just a damn good team defending its home field and beating a team it's better than. (It should be noted that Chivas have been horrible at home since winning the Liga MX title in May 2017, so the Sounders should go ahead and feel great if they get a good result Wednesday. Toronto, on the other hand, not so much.)
Why does this year feel different? MLS teams are ready, some Mexican teams are struggling, the format gets right to the good stuff. You've got to see these games.