CCL play a rude awakening for some; and St. Louis City is real


Philadelphia Union’s Andres Perea (left) celebrates with Jack McGlynn after scoring against Alianza FC in the second leg of a CONCACAF Champions League match in Chester, Pennsylvania March 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)

Throwing Major League Soccer into international competition against teams well into their season seems unfair. But it also offers a little spontaneity to what MLS teams can achieve. Assuming you actually win, of course.

That is the beauty and complexity of the CONCACAF Champions League.

Austin FC found it the hard way in the most surprising run of the five MLS representatives. The third-year club were buoyant at the start of this season after a great 2022 in which they reached the Western Conference Finals. But 2023 has not been kind for El Verde and the shock defeat and early exit from the tournament at the hands of Haitian club Violette AFC will surely ache for a while to come.

First of all, the opponent was a team that had not played a professional game in almost a year. Due to political unrest and corruption in Haiti, the situation was bleak for local football teams and there was a chance that this series would not even take place. Fortunately, although the first leg had to be played at a neutral venue in the Dominican Republic. Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff went into this game with a rotational line-up and was blown away as they suffered a demoralizing 3-0 loss.

The second leg at Austin’s Q2 Stadium was a little different as Austin pressed throughout the 90 minutes but was only able to score two goals, inevitably falling short.

The lesson is clear: don’t underestimate CCL games, enemies and mayhem.

Orlando City certainly didn’t as they had perhaps the toughest first round matchup against Liga MX’s Tigres UANL. And after leaving Mexico with a stalemate, the Lions seemed in good shape to head back to Florida and hopefully advance. The Mexico side had other plans and made things difficult for Orlando despite the exploits of goalkeeper Pedro Gallese as the 1-1 draw saw Orlando eliminated on away goals.

Two out of five MLS teams were gone just like that.

The Philadelphia Union, hailed by many as the side best placed to follow the Seattle Sounders’ success as CCL champions, settled the matter at home with a 4-0 win over El Salvador’s Alianza in the second leg and moved on. The Vancouver Whitecaps, the weakest MLS on paper, defeated Real España 5-0 in the first leg in what was basically a ticket to the next round with no problems.

Defending MLS Cup champions LAFC put on a great performance in Costa Rica’s 3-0 win over LD Alajuelense. The return leg in Los Angeles got a bit shaky as they conceded the first two goals and sweated a bit before Carlos Vela came to the rescue in the 83rd minute to put it out of reach.

LAFC now plays Vancouver in the quarterfinals, which guarantees at least one MLS team to reach the semifinals. If Union is able to beat Liga MX’s Atlas in their matchup, they will advance to the semi-finals against the winner of that LAFC-Vancouver tilt, which would mean an MLS representative will play in the championship game.

It takes a lot to happen, and as CCL has shown us before, prepare for anything.

Best team in MLS is…

Eventually the “luck” runs out and you just have to accept that St. Louis City is good. They became the first expansion club in MLS history to win their first four games with a 3-0 win over the Earthquakes. Twelve points and pretty much at the top of the table, as nobody expected. Aside from the win, it’s the swagger this team displays that stands out the most. Calling them underdogs before they’ve played a real game is one thing, but they smashed that moniker along with any expectations, or lack thereof.

“The guys were angry from day one that nobody believed in them,” said head coach Bradley Carnell. “So yes, we have the chip on our shoulder.”

St. Louis City forward João Klauss (9) celebrates a goal with teammate Eduard Lowen (10) in a game against Charlotte FC March 4, 2023 in St. Louis. (Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s much more than a chip. The style of play is convincing, the pressing is suffocating and the energy is contagious. João Klauss has already established himself early in the race for the Golden Boot with three goals. Eduard Löwen and Nicholas Gioacchini were hugely important to anchor an attack that counts for a league-best 11 goals. And the best part is that this squad simply bought into the process while making epic history. Two sell-out home games add to their two away wins in extremely difficult venues like Austin and Portland.

Say what you will, it’s early — or any other excuse you can think of for not giving St. Louis the honor it deserves — they seem to thrive on it and enjoy it anyway. But again, this is no coincidence.

Atlanta United is actually back

When Atlanta entered MLS in 2017 and found instant success by winning the cup in 2018, it was just an announcement. That was the standard they would follow. The Five Stripes took the league by storm, setting attendance records and enjoying every second of the action. But things changed as relationships faded, star players came and went with more bad memories than good. The club regressed horribly as it cycled through the head coaches. However, what we have seen so far in 2023 is reminiscent of those early glory days. Three wins and one draw, eleven goals scored while only three goals conceded.

We knew Thiago Almada would be very good, but maybe not The Good. It seemed like he learned a thing or two from his teammate Lionel Messi at the World Cup because he can’t stop scoring those absurd free-kick goals.

The 21-year-old world champion already has four goals and four assists as MLS best. With every game that goes by, you see your transfer value increase by millions. Then there’s 18-year-old Caleb Wiley, who burst onto the scene and scored three goals himself. Life is so good for Atlanta that Giorgos Giakoumakis finally made his first start, scoring instantly as part of the 5-1 loss to Portland.

The confidence and freedom that Atlanta is playing with right now is a complete change from what we saw last year. It recreates the feeling that got fans and neutrals so excited to see this team weekly.

Mixed feelings for the winless Galaxy

Two draws and one loss in three games isn’t the worst, but scoring just a couple of goals is a bit of a concern for the LA Galaxy. It certainly doesn’t help if your designated star players are already out through injury. And having a somewhat divided fanbase is a headache for everyone involved. Saturday night’s house opening in Carson, California was supposed to be a celebration, as is customary. Instead, due to disagreements with the front office and President Chris Klein, it was overwritten by a pre-game protest outside the stadium.

Huge banners, flags and signs demanding Klein’s removal attracted the attention of people inside and outside the stadium. The same rowdy supporters who lead the chants and create the energy during the game chose not to participate in the actual game as part of their boycott. The crowd inside was surprisingly better than expected at 23,112 visitors, but the silence and lack of constant singing that has become a tradition is hard to ignore. Ironically, it was the Galaxy’s best performance of the season, but they still failed to claim their first win.

Los Angeles Galaxy fans protest against Galaxy’s front office and team president Chris Klein before the game against the Vancouver Whitecaps on March 18, 2023 in Carson, California. (Shaun Clark/Getty Images)

“I’m grateful for the people who came to the stadium and supported the group,” said head coach Greg Vanney after the 1-1 draw with Vancouver. “We will continue to focus on winning games and whoever wants to be in the stadium we will try to entertain them.”

This appears to be a stalemate with no real ending anytime soon. What has to come soon is putting one in the win column, otherwise the noise will only multiply.

What to make of Revs?

How you react to defeat can say a lot about a team. The New England Revolution would like to completely wipe last week’s 4-0 loss to LAFC out of their minds if they could. It was out of character for her, but a necessary reality check. Head coach Bruce Arena basically put it down to the team not being as good as the defending champions and that’s okay to say because it’s true. LAFC is at another elite level with very few teams in the league. But it’s not far-fetched to say that New England sits squarely in that following group in terms of a team that can really compete this season.

The 1-0 win over Nashville isn’t going to flatter anyone, but to finally concede a goal is a huge victory. And for Gustavo Bou, who wasn’t on the team this preseason while awaiting his green card process, to score that goal is immense. Not only was it the Revs’ third win of the season, it was their third clean sheet.

Defensively they could be one of the better teams in MLS as Dave Romney gets used to it and DeJuan Jones continues to thrive. Easily one of the most underrated players in the league, Matt Polster covers an absurd amount of ground. Noel Buck is one of the most exciting young players and shows his quality every time he takes the field and plays well beyond his years. Dylan Borrero has the ability and promise to be a game-changer – even Bou said he reminded him of former Revolution star Tajon Buchanan.

Djordje Petrovic is probably the best goalkeeper in MLS.

If it looks like this is just running off a list, that’s because it is. It aims to show just how strong New England is in so many different areas, and that’s without mentioning former MVP Carles Gil, who is struggling with an injury. With him, this team is not to be taken lightly. Of course, there are areas of improvement in the roster and specific players, but you shouldn’t be sleeping on the Revs at all this season. They are just a few years away from a record-breaking Supporters’ Shield season and look set for a very successful 2023.

Or you can adopt Arena’s unsurprising approach: “The first four games of the season mean absolutely nothing.”

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