Starting Eleven: Champions League kicks off 5 Stripes season

Jason Longshore
February 15, 2019 - 10:24 am

© Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

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Five MLS clubs are preparing for the start of their season in the Concacaf Champions League next week, while the other eighteen are continuing their preseason play ahead of the league’s opening weekend on March 2. For Atlanta United, the matches start counting next Thursday from Costa Rica.

Here’s your Starting Eleven for the week, your water cooler talking points (HT “Doc Soc” Jon Chuckery) to prepare you for the first big week of soccer in 2019 in Atlanta.

1 - We are less than a week away from meaningful matches again

Frank de Boer has had to structure his preseason a little differently that most MLS teams, with Atlanta United playing their first competitive match on the road in the Concacaf Champions League. He has had this type of season schedule before though in Europe, when Ajax had to go through qualifying rounds in the UEFA Champions League that began right before the regular season in the Netherlands. That experience was very important for him to lean on with only about five weeks to prepare for important matches.

2 - Getting off to a good start is key in the Concacaf Champions League

On the road in a series like this, a good start is key. Think back to the Eastern Conference semifinals against NYCFC last year. An early goal was wiped away due to a correct VAR decision, but Atlanta put their hosts under pressure early. Eric Remedi’s goal gave them a critical away goal, but also claimed the momentum. NYCFC was never able to get back into the series. This is the same sort of situation. A first half goal, getting a result on the road next Thursday, these are the sorts of things that will make the return leg in Kennesaw much more comfortable.

3 - Herediano is a wounded animal

Atlanta will be facing a proud, veteran-laden team in Herediano that is coming off of winning the Costa Rican championship in December. However, after selling some key players and dealing with some important injuries, the red and yellow have struggled mightily in the current Clausura season. Herediano is currently in ninth place out of twelve teams and the pressure has been mounting on manager Hernán Medford. With a split-season format, managers do not get time to turn things around often. There have already been multiple managerial changes in Costa Rica in a season that is only a few weeks old.

4 - Fitness levels will be important to monitor

Both teams have issues with fitness going into Thursday. Atlanta United has played multiple preseason matches, but it is very tough to replicate real match conditions. It is even tougher to replicate match conditions in international play like the Concacaf Champions League. Herediano will have played nine league matches by the time they kick off against Atlanta, but they have played five of those since the beginning of February. Medford talked about the schedule really hurting his players and their ability to recover. With Herediano traveling to second-place Pérez Zeledón on Sunday, I’ll be curious to see if Medford rests players ahead of the Atlanta match or feels like he cannot afford to sacrifice points in the league table.

5 - Leadership from players with experience in these situations

Both teams have key players with experience in big situations. Herediano has many veterans of the Costa Rican national team and the Concacaf Champions League. Their backline features 36-year old Pablo Salazar and 31-year old Omar Arellano. Atlanta United will likely play two 35-year olds in Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz. For both teams, these veterans set the tone for the younger players around them. Both teams also went through tests in playoff action last November and December and will have to rely on lessons learned from those matches as well.

6 - Managing emotions

It’s international play, it’s Concacaf, so expect all of the drama that is typically seen in these situations. Herediano is a club that leads the Costa Rican team in yellow cards so far this season. All of the gamesmanship typically seen in these moments will be on display and it has to be expected. Both sets of players cannot let the emotion of the moment cause negative reactions. Time will be wasted, fouls will be accentuated (or attempted to be created out of nothing), and calls will be missed. Both teams have a mix of young and older players that have been around the block a few times, so none of this should be a surprise to them.

7 - Four other MLS squads play in the Concacaf Champions League next week too

The tournament starts on Tuesday with Toronto heading to Panama to face Independiente and Houston traveling to Guatemala to play Guastatoya. The Red Bulls play Atlético Pantoja in the Dominican Republic on Wednesday. Each of these matches pits a MLS club against a team making their first appearance in the Concacaf Champions League. Sporting Kansas City hosts a veteran of the competition, Liga MX’s Toluca, on Thursday immediately prior to the Atlanta match kicking off.

8 - MLS has never won the competition in its current format

Since the tournament format changed and a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup was given to the winner, Major League Soccer clubs have failed to win the championship. In the old Concacaf Cup days, DC United won it in RFK Stadium in 1998 and the LA Galaxy won in 2001 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Real Salt Lake, Montreal Impact, and Toronto FC have reached the final but lost to Mexican clubs.

9 - Don Garber will continue as the commissioner of MLS

It was announced yesterday that Don Garber’s contract as commissioner of Major League Soccer was extended through 2023. He became the league’s second commissioner in 1999 and has been part of the incredible growth of the league from contracting two clubs to go back to ten teams in the league to a 2020 season that will see twenty-six teams battle for the title. With more expansion on the horizon, it was not a surprise to see Garber continue in the role.

10 - Title contenders still trying to complete their 2019 squads

Atlanta United locked up the Pity Martinez acquisition early in the offseason, and many questions were raised about how they would get roster compliant with only three Designated Players. The transfer of Miguel Almirón on January 31 was on the final day of the European transfer window, but gave the current squad plenty of time to gel ahead of the 2019 season. The LA Galaxy still have four Designated Players and are reportedly trying to sign one of them to a restructured contract that would meet league rules to become roster compliant. Portland and Toronto are trying to add expensive Designated Players to their roster, but are finding it difficult to get clubs to sell players in February when they cannot add replacements due to their domestic transfer windows already being closed. Outside of Atlanta at the moment, there are very few teams in MLS whose roster feels complete.

11- Georgia Soccer Hall of Fame inducts new members

Last weekend, the Georgia Soccer Hall of Fame inducted Tony Annan and the 1968 Atlanta Chiefs at the state association’s Annual General Meeting. Annan is the current Atlanta United academy director who has helped build one of the top MLS academies in a very short period of time. His coaching career in Atlanta youth soccer began in the 1990’s and his forward-thinking mentality has helped grow the game here in many different ways ahead of the launch of Atlanta United. The 1968 Atlanta Chiefs won Atlanta’s first major professional sports championship in their second season. They were also critical to planting seeds of soccer’s growth, there were only a handful of high school programs in the state at the time. No organized youth or adult soccer programs existed when the Chiefs launched, there was not even a state association to organize the sport. In addition to their excellence on the field (where they won the league title and defeated the current English champions Manchester City twice), they conducted hundreds of camps and clinics introducing over 20,000 youth and adults to the sport of soccer.