For all of the progress that MLS has made over the years, one area that has been slow to improve is the league's performance in international club competitions, in particular, the CONCACAF Champions Cup. On Wednesday, D.C. United and the Houston Dynamo will begin play in this year's edition of the CCC and both sides will be hoping to reverse a history of poor results by MLS clubs.
I'm sure that some fans of both United and the Los Angeles Galaxy will point to the CCC crown that each team has in its trophy case as proof that MLS has held its own. But it's worth noting that neither side had to clear customs on their way to their respective titles. On both occasions, the tournament was an abbreviated event that saw each team win in its home stadium. Once CONCACAF returned to a home-and-away format in 2002, the CCC has proven to be a veritable beatdown for MLS sides.
American teams have won only two series out of eight in the last three years, and last year both the Galaxy and the New England Revolution lost in heartbreaking fashion in the opening round.
That's something that both of this year's entrants will be trying to change, but the usual obstacles that MLS teams face still exist, with the timing of the tournament tops on the list. The Dynamo and United have been in preseason training for a scant three weeks, while their opponents (Costa Rica's Puntarenas and Honduran side CD Olimpia respectively) are a little more than halfway through their league programs. The difference in fitness and overall match sharpness will be obvious, but as Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear puts it, "There's no use making excuses, because no one wants to listen to them anyway."
With that in mind, here's what to watch for as United and the Dynamo attempt to increase the league's international street cred.
Five storylines to follow
1. Can an MLS team survive on the road?
Last year both the Galaxy and the Revolution battled well away from home, but in both instances the matches comprised the second leg of the series, which allowed them two more precious weeks of training to find their feet. This time, both United and the Dynamo open on the road, and if they can keep their respective cup ties close, that might be enough to prevail when they play the return leg in two weeks time.
2. Tom Soehn's first game in charge.
I'll wager that the ink was barely dry on the United head coach's contract when GM Kevin Payne said, "Uh Tom, have we told you about this game in Honduras?" Any pleas by Soehn for an immediate raise probably fell on deaf ears, but Wednesday's match in Tegucigalpa makes for a heck of a coaching baptism. Fortunately, Soehn's tenure as a United assistant should ease the transition somewhat.
3. Can Houston break Costa Rica's hoodoo over MLS?
Since 2002, MLS is a woeful 0-for-6 against Costa Rican sides, making the Dynamo's opponent, Puntarenas, slightly more difficult than United's. "Las Naranjas" are a relative newcomer to the CCC fold, but as reigning Caribbean club champions, they should give the Dynamo all they can handle. The Estadio Lito Perez only holds 6,000 fans, but it's a venue in which the supporters are practically on top of the field and should provide the kind of intimidating atmosphere for which the country is well known.
4. Will some former (and present) reserves give United a lift?
The Black-and-Red's offseason was notable more for the players who left than for those who arrived, specifically the likes of Freddy Adu and Alecko Eskandarian. United have signed Brazilian Luciano Emilio to plug the gap up top, but the loss of Adu gives D.C. a bit less flexibility in midfield, with Ben Olsen now occupying the right side. Still, the match should provide the likes of Clyde Simms and Rod Dyachenko the opportunity to stake their claim for more playing time.
5. Can either team overcome its lack of match sharpness?
Call it an excuse if you must, but one only had to watch Chelsea in last year's MLS All-Star game to see just how much fitness can affect the outcome of a match, and it should prove to be no different come Wednesday. The respective causes of both MLS teams have been bolstered by players participating in national team camps, but with the remaining players having less than a month's training under their belts, both Soehn and Kinnear likely will leave no sub unused come Wednesday.
Five players to watch
1. Jorge Barbosa, M, Puntarenas
Barbosa is living proof that there isn't a country on the planet that doesn't have a Brazilian on one of its team's books. But his home country's loss is Puntarenas' gain, and as the main creative influence for "Las Naranjas," Barbosa is the player mentioned by Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear as the one they have to stop.
2. Luciano Emilio, F, D.C. United
United signed Emilio this offseason to fill the void left by Eskandarian, and early reports indicate that the Brazilian is meshing well with United's other key attackers, forward Jaime Moreno and midfielder Christian Gomez. Wednesday's match should give a better indication of just how far along that process is.
3. Wilmer Velasquez, F, Olimpia
Velasquez is fresh off a four-goal performance for the Honduran national team against Nicaragua at the UNCAF Digicel Cup, which helped book his country's passage to this summer's Gold Cup. On Wednesday, he should be Olimpia's main attacking threat as they attempt to build an insurmountable lead against United.
4. Dwayne De Rosario, M, Houston
Having taken part in a January training camp for the Canadian national team, De Rosario will be one of the few Dynamo players who won't be concerned about his fitness. For that, Houston will be counting its blessings, as De Rosario's work rate is among his most prized assets, and his creativity gives the Dynamo their best chance of snatching a goal or two away from home.
5. Kurt Bernard, F, Puntarenas
Bernard is another player who delivered in the clutch for his country at the UNCAF Digicel Cup, scoring the equalizer for Costa Rica in the final against Panama, a game which the Ticos eventually won on penalties. Bernard's powerful presence up front has also seen him have success at club level, where his 11 goals this season rank second in Costa Rica's Primera Division. At the least, Bernard should provide a physical challenge to Houston center backs Eddie Robinson and Ryan Cochrane.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.