After decades of hurt, 2022 finally saw MLS’ Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) Champions League drought come to an end, with Seattle Sounders securing a 5-2 aggregate victory over Mexico’s UNAM. Five MLS teams will compete in the 2023 edition of the competition, and beginning on March 7, will begin their campaign with eyes on securing a second consecutive title for the league.
Austin FC: Violette AC (Haiti) –Mar. 7, 14,
Two unknown quantities came together in the first tie of the 2023 CCL, with Violette AC –1984 CONCACAF Champions Cup winners–facing 2022 MLS Western Conference runners-up Austin FC. The Haitian side qualifies for its first CCL (in this iteration, at least) after winning the 2022 Caribbean Club Championship–the final edition of the competition–and can list former CF Montreal midfielder Steeven Saba among their personnel.
Austin qualified for its first CCL after an impressive year 2 showing and will be hoping for new signing Gyasi Zardes to link up with key player Sebastián Driussi –who earned a new contract following a stellar 2022 season. Leo Väisänen joined the team from Elfsborg in the offseason, and, along with the incoming Amro Tarek, will look to fill the defensive void left by the departed Ruben Gabrielsen. Other than these signings, along with the addition of experienced striker Will Bruin from the Seattle Sounders, we can probably expect a similar Austin FC to the one we saw last season.
It’s hard to see beyond Austin in this one, the side looks better on paper than it did last year, and without disrespecting Violette AC, I can only see the MLS side advancing here.
Philadelphia Union: Alianza (El Salvador) –Mar. 7, 14.
Last season’s MLS Cup runners-up, Philadelphia are many pundits’ favorites for domestic success going into the 2023 season, starting strong with a 4-1 win over Columbus, Philadelphia will look to do some damage on the continental stage too–taking on El Salvador’s Alianza in the round of 16.
Alianza currently top the El Salvadorian Clausura, and will be hoping to use its fine form to swing the matchup in its favor. Philadelphia will count on Julian Carranza and Daniel Gazdag to continue their blazing start to the season–both players netting braces on opening day.
Philadelphia is, in the view of many, the strongest team in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire league. If not for the inspired LAFC team of last year or the Covid-19 outbreak that saw a massively weakened team bow out to New York City FC in the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals–we could be looking at a 2-in-a-row champion. I see the side going deep in this competition and progressing here.
Orlando City: Tigres UANL (Mexico) –Mar. 7, 15.
Orlando opened their season with a 1-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls, and following a 2022 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup victory, the side will be looking to add more silverware in 2023. Standing in its way is Mexican powerhouse Tigres UANL, 2020 CCL winners.
The Mexican side has an immense arsenal of talent at its disposal, with evergreen ex-France international André-Pierre Gignac–despite turning 37 in December–still providing amassive threat in attack. Orlando can look to young Uruguayan star player Facundo Torres to provide the spark in this tie, with Peruvian shot-stopper Pedro Gallese capable of keeping the team in any match in goal.
This could be a tight one, but I feel that Tigres’ added match fitness could give them the cutting edge, and while I see Orlando putting up a fight, they’re likely to fall at the first hurdle here.
Vancouver Whitecaps: Real España (Honduras) Mar. 8, 15.
Opening its season with a 2-1 loss vs Real Salt Lake, 2022 Canadian Championship winners Vancouver will be taking on 2022 CONCACAF League semi-finalists Real España. The Whitecaps last played in this competition in 2016, making an impressive run to the Semi-finals, while España’s last appearance came in 2014, where it failed to escape the group stage. The Honduran side is currently 5thin domestic play, with 2022 CONCACAF League Golden Boot winner Ramiro Rocca and former LAFC loanee goalkeeper Luis López among the notable names the club has at its disposal.
Vancouver missed the playoffs in 2022, and have looked to strengthen in the offseason by releasing Designated Player Lucas Cavallini to make room for the acquisition of Venezuelan striker Sergio Córdova from Germany’s FC Augsburg, and will be hoping he can add to the 11 goals in 34 matches he managed last season, on loan with RSL. Further notable additions for the Canadian side are goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka, signing from Yokohama F Marinos in Japan, and Uruguayan defender Mathías Laborda on a free transfer.
This one is hard to call, and could very well come down to how quickly Córdova gels with Whitecaps’ frontline, and it is imperative for the Canadian team that España does not win the first leg of the tie, or the ‘Caps could find themselves in some trouble, going to the Honduras with a deficit to overturn. My head can’t predict this one, but my heart has Vancouver edging the tie.
LAFC: Alajuelense (Costa Rica) –Mar. 9, 15.
After a dramatic 2022 MLS Cupwin earning its place in the 2023 CCL, LAFC will only have one competitive fixture–after its El Trafico season opener vs LA Galaxy was postponed–ahead of its tie against 2022’s CONCACAF League runners-up Alajuelense. The Costa Rican side is currently first in the Clausura, and the team last competed in the competition in 2021, losing 2-0 to Atlanta United over two legs. LAFC will feel as if it has unfinished business in the CCL, last appearing in the 2020 final–where it led 1-0 against Tigres UANL, before a 72ndminute Hugo Ayala equalizer seemed to pull the wind from the side’s sails–leaving André-Pierre Gignac to finish off the Los Angeles team in the 84th minute.
The side has a few questions going into 2023, after losing big names like 128th minute MLS Cup hero Gareth Bale and team top-scorer Cristian Arango, as well as original team member Latif Blessing. However, fans can look forward to new signings Stipe Biuk and Timothy Tillman, who along with USMNT defender Aaron Long will provide an injection of fresh quality to look forward to. Furthermore, any team with Carlos Vela can consider itself as having a chance, the experienced Mexican may not be the player he was in his record-breaking 2019 season but can undoubtedly still produce game-winning quality on his day.
While Alajuelense ought to put up a stern test, with a strong veteran core–including former LA Galaxy and Columbus Crew defender Giancarlo Gonzalez–it is hard to look beyond the 2022 MLS Supporters Shield winners in this one, even with a potential lack of competitive fitness.