After a quite disappointing beginning to the MLS campaign, perhaps the Whitecaps need a bit of a change in scenery in order to kickstart 2023. Or at least, a different competition to compete in.
Wednesday night marks the beginning of the 2023 CONCACAF Champions League, a tournament the ‘Caps have not competed in since 2016. That year they reached the semi-finals before losing to Tigres, in a CCL that was radically different in its structure. Long gone is the group stage, now it’s a knockout bracket the whole way through, beginning with sixteen teams.
First up for the ‘Caps is Real España, a Honduran side who are making their first appearance in the tournament since 2014. The ‘Caps are hosting the first leg before traveling down to San Pedro Sula next week. Having to play the second leg in hostile territory means a strong result this week is a must, given that it will be quite a unique test for this squad to play a competitive match in such a foreign environment.
The biggest question is how much lineup rotation there will be, given that this is the second match in a stretch of five in fifteen days, quite a daunting schedule given that it includes a trip to Honduras in the middle of it. There’s a reason why Champions League participants often get off to slow starts in MLS play, because it’s quite hard to prioritize and get strong results in both competitions.
Of course, the ‘Caps can ill-afford an even slower start in the MLS regular season. But it would also be exceedingly wasteful to not put everything behind a CCL campaign when it’s been a rare occurrence for the club to have a shot in this competition. They certainly won’t be favoured to win it but crashing out early would only add fuel to the fire sprung out of back-to-back losses to start the year.
Some of the biggest question marks for the lineup at the moment surround the backline. Both of the last two weeks saw the ‘Caps give up pairs of goals less than ten minutes apart, collapsing and giving up all three points after taking an early lead. They’ve looked vulnerable at the fullback positions, currently occupied by Luis Martins and Javain Brown.
If one or both of them are taken out of the lineup, it will be very interesting to see which direction Vanni Sartini chooses to go. Tristan Blackmon played at right-back before coming to Vancouver but does Sartini see him now as a centre-back only? Will Mathias Laborda slide over after playing all across the backline in preseason? Will either Ryan Raposo or Ali Ahmed get minutes there? Cristian Gutierrez has been hurt and once he’s back we’ll have to see if he’s still banished to the shadow realm as he was last season.
Russell Teibert and Sebastian Berhalter are both logical starters for this match to spell some rest for the midfield trio who started both of the first two matches, while we might also see the first start of Sergio Córdova who has yet to really find his footing off the bench in his first two appearances. The ‘Caps will really need him to show he’s worthy of the price they paid for him as the top of the attack has looked a little toothless at times in the early going this year.
Looking at the visitors, Real España are one of the biggest clubs in Honduras although they’ve only won two titles in the last decade. Last season they finished as runners-up in both the Honduran Apertura and Clausura seasons and qualified for the CCL by reaching the semi-finals of the 2022 CONCACAF League, where they lost to Costa Rican side Alajuelense. That run saw then go undefeated in their four road games, keeping two clean sheets in the process. Definite food for thought for Vancouver.
Honduras is currently in the middle of its Clausura season in the 2022/23 campaign. Real España finished 4th in the Apertura and lost in the first round of the playoffs, and currently sit 5th in the Clausura having only won one of their last six matches. They have a balanced attack with their 18 Clausura goals scored by 10 different players.
This year is a busy one for the Whitecaps with four different competitions to take part in. With the Sounders breaking new ground for MLS in the CCL last year a shot at glory is available. The ‘Caps just really need to pick up the pace to grasp it.