MLS teams embark on awkward journey in CONCACAF Champions League

Portland is one of five MLS sides preparing to navigate through the CONCACAF Champions League group stage. Montréal starts the process with its match against Salvadoran side FAS at Stade Saputo on Tuesday night.

Steve Dykes/Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

PORTLAND, Ore.

MLS clubs learned long ago to approach the CONCACAF Champions League with caution and respect. Every successive tournament delivers yet another lesson about the realities and the rigors of the exacting proceedings. It is not a competition to take for granted or treat lightly anymore.

The continued frustrations in the knockout round persist with Mexican clubs claiming the title year after year, but those considerations linger on the back burner for now. There are more instant concerns to weigh as the 2014-15 edition of the CONCACAF Champions League kicks off on Tuesday night.

Four out of the five MLS clubs entered into this competition face the awkward task of navigating through group play over the next few months. Montréal and New York will confront each other in Group 3 to determine the likely winner of that trio, but D.C. United, Portland, Sporting Kansas City can secure a place in the quarterfinal with the proper application and care.

“It’s something we’re taking very seriously,” Portland captain Will Johnson said. “We desperately need to get out of that group. It’s very, very important for MLS to keep taking strides toward winning that championship. We share that responsibility. So this year, we’re going to put everything we have into getting out of that group. And then we’ll retool in the offseason and try to make another run. But first and foremost, we have to try to get out of that group. It’s important to us.”

There is little room for error given the compressed and fraught nature of group play. The format — eight groups of three with each of the teams proceeding through round-robin fare to determine the group winner — exposes favorites to potential upset. Club América and Houston both exited after the initial stage last year after entering the tournament as significant favorites to progress to the last eight. Similar peril looms again in this edition if teams fail to display the proper diligence.

Rewards beckon for those entrants willing to expend energy and resources to march through group play. The seeding system in the quarterfinal ranks the teams 1-8 based on the points accumulated during the first phase. A dropped point here or there may not imperil progress if it occurs in isolation, but it certainly can influence the difficulty of the quarterfinal assignment ahead next year.

MLS teams cannot afford to further complicate the arduous task ahead in the knockout round. The difference between playing the second leg of a quarterfinal on home soil or visiting a hostile venue in Costa Rica or Mexico affects the viability of a title challenge considerably. It is vital for the selected teams to figure out a way to manage the demands of a playoff race in domestic play without sacrificing the results required to succeed in the Champions League, too.

"It’s a tournament, so it’s like a sprint," Montreal midfielder Patrice Bernier told reporters ahead of the Impact’s opener against FAS atStade Saputo on Tuesday night. "Every game is extremely important. We want to start the tournament well to get some positive (things) behind us, not only for the players on the field, but for the fans and the organization. When you are having a tough season, a cup like this can put can change the momentum with some good results."

A victory over a Salvadoran side willing to travel to Quebec with just 14 players hardly constitutes a rallying point, but the underlying themes ring true. The group stage of this tournament demands rapt attention from the outset and forces teams to produce consistently in order to progress. Rough starts transform into unseemly conclusions quickly.

It is a warning Sporting Kansas City (drawn into Group 2 with Costa Rican giants Deportivo Saprissa and familiar Nicaraguan foe Real Esteli) must heed given its tricky assignment, while D.C. United (dropped into Group 4 with Panamanian outfit Tauro and Jamaican side Waterhouse) and Portland (placed in Group 5 with Honduran power Olimpia and Guyanese team Alpha United) need to exercise the proper amount of prudence to meander through their slates, too.

The continued upheaval in this tournament over the past few years reflects the increasingly competitive nature of the region and underscores the requirements ahead for these MLS teams over the next few months. It isn’t enough to turn up anymore in the group stage. There are no guarantees afforded. It is now down to each of the entrants to rise to the standard accordingly and secure a place in the last eight with a minimum of fuss.