The final weekend of MLS play is quickly approaching and we now have a near-complete picture of which sides will be partaking in postseason play. Additionally, over the last week two clubs — Los Angeles FC and New York City — booked their tickets to the 2020 Concacaf Champions League.
With only one berth yet to be officially determined through the winners of MLS Cup, the lineup for MLS’ participation in the next Concacaf Champions League looks more promising than ever. As LAFC are on the verge of stealing 2018 Atlanta United’s claim as the best MLS side of all time, you have two sides with every right to believe that can go toe-to-toe with the region’s best.
Meanwhile, NYCFC have plenty to boast about in light of their stellar regular season and Eastern Conference crown clinched with a game to play, and Montreal’s first participation since their runners-up finish in 2014 will be a storyline to keep an eye on. Given the available personnel, coaching, and recent success of the teams involved, 2019 will MLS’ best shot at finally getting over the hump by capturing a first Concacaf Champions League title.
Atlanta United | U.S. Open Cup Champions
The reigning champs know a thing or two about getting their hands on hardware.
It’s also no secret that Atlanta United were in disarray at the start of the season following the departures of Miguel Almirón and Gerardo “Tata” Martino. Fans were calling for Frank de Boer’s head only a few matches in when the Five Stripes found themselves at the bottom of the table, but those early struggles are now a distant memory in the wake of their Campeones Cup win against Club América, U.S. Open Cup triumph, and ascent to second place in the Eastern Conference.
They may have dug an early hole through sloppy play in the first leg, but they were still able to make a profound statement by topping eventual champions Monterrey last time around — their first loss of 2019 no less. Josef Martinez continues to bag goals for fun, Pity Martinez is finding his way after a frustrating start to life in MLS, and de Boer has improved his approach and tactics — all of this will contribute to the Five Stripes having a much greater shot at lifting the regional title.
Los Angeles FC | Supporters’ Shield Winners
The obvious choice if you were putting money on an MLS side in the competition, LAFC have steamrolled most everyone they have faced in league play and don’t have any plans on stopping the train until they have the MLS Cup in hand.
While superior talent, coaching, payrolls, etc. have most often led to Liga MX domination over MLS clubs, the experience factor cannot be overstated. Captain Carlos Vela’s previous escapades for club and country will be invaluable in leading his side when they come up against stiff Liga MX and Central American competition in difficult environments. There’s arguably no captain-coach combo better suited to lead a team into the Concacaf Champions League than Vela and Bob Bradley.
Montreal Impact | Canadian Champions
The Impact are riding high after dispatching Toronto FC in penalties to take the Canadian Championship, thus booking their spot in the next edition of the Champions League. The Canadians may be the least likely side to make any noise against Mexican or Central American opposition, but they shouldn’t be ruled out yet by any means.
Montreal have a wild card in new signing Bojan Krkic. Although his career may not have worked out according to plan after leaving Barcelona, there’s no denying the talent for the attacker who has suited up for the likes of Roma, Ajax, and Stoke City. It seems he’s been around for a couple of decades at this point, but the Spaniard is only 29 and should have plenty left in the tank. He got his Montreal account off and running in spectacular fashion against Toronto, and another big goal to draw with Atlanta bodes well for his chances of becoming a pivotal component moving forward.
A few more months under the direction of new coach Wilmer Cabrera will go a long way in determining how the offense pans out, as well as who the Impact are able to sign in the offseason. Let’s not forget that their last appearance in the tournament resulted in a magical run to the final, where they impressively held Club América to a draw in Mexico City before falling in the home return leg.
New York City FC | Eastern Conference Champions
Domenec Torrent’s men have enjoyed quite the rise during the Spaniard’s first full season at the helm. Their abysmal start to 2019 — zero wins in their first six matches — hardly made it look likely that they would top the conference, but here we are six months later and their six defeats are only two behind LAFC. Their ability to quietly churn out result after result has been nothing short of spectacular. This may be his first stint with a first division side, but Torrent’s ability to get the most out of a squad with just the 14th-highest payroll says plenty about his managerial adeptness and potential moving forward.
Their offensive prospects may not have looked the brightest heading into the season, but those concerns have been put to bed with three players in double figures and a host of other pieces contributing on the scoresheet. Brazilian striker Heber has been a revelation with 15 goals in 22 appearances. His return from a right quad injury will be instrumental to their playoff hopes and Champions League campaign early next year. Meanwhile, there’s been no better creator in the league than 32-year-old Maxi Moralez. The Argentine recently became just the third player in MLS history to notch 20 assists in a single campaign.