As far as competitions for American soccer teams go, CONCACAF Champions League lags behind MLS in overall prestige and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in longevity and history. But recent successes in the tournament have increased awareness across MLS and broadened aspirations for the clubs involved.
The Houston Dynamo were one of those successes last time around, as they were one of three MLS teams to advance into the knockout stages, and dealt a 1-0 defeat to Mexican side Santos Laguna at BBVA Compass Stadium before dropping the return leg and losing on aggregate.
The Dynamo’s 2013-14 campaign kicks off on Tuesday as they travel to Trinidad and Tobago to face W Connection before taking on Panamanian club Árabe Unido at home on August 27 (TICKETS). Árabe Unido currently leads the group as they defeated W Connection 3-1 earlier this month. To get you ready, here’s what to watch for in this year’s competition:
1. Debut of Alexander López—This will be the first glimpse of new Designated Player Alexander López for many Dynamo fans. López’s situation is similar to Giles Barnes’ arrival last season as a late addition to the squad. Barnes was limited in MLS minutes during the final part of the season, but started CCL matches to prove his worth and parlayed that into playoff appearances and a starting job the following year. The glut of games over the final few months will give both fans and the Dynamo coaching staff ample opportunity to see exactly what the young Honduran can bring to the table.
2. Benchmark for young players—López isn’t the only player looking to make an impression during the CCL group stage. Young players on the roster will have the chance to showcase how far they’ve developed this season against first-team opposition. Rookies Anthony Arena and Jason Johnson should get their first extended looks with the first team since the beginning of June, when both featured against the Columbus Crew and Johnson played the full 90 minutes in the Open Cup loss to FC Dallas. Sophomore Brian Ownby has been in scintillating form while on loan with the Richmond Kickers, but can that translate to the Dynamo, where head coach Dominic Kinnear has tested out him several times this year at right back? Finally, though he doesn't necessarily fall under the "young player" category, CCL could be the place where Calen Carr begins to get some match fitness in his return from an ACL injury.
3. Talent on the other side?—MLS is becoming a destination for plenty of CONCACAF players—the Dynamo feature a pair of Hondurans and Jamaicans on their squad. Boniek García and Alexander López hailed from perennial CCL contenders Olimpia, and Kinnear has admitted to using last year’s group stage matches against the Honduran club to scout his newest signing. What future MLS talent currently resides with Árabe Unido, W Connection or any of the other CCL clubs?
4. Future payoff—Remember the buzz surrounding BBVA Compass Stadium when Herculez Gomez and Santos Laguna came rolling into town this spring? That doesn’t happen if the Dynamo hadn’t taken care of business against Olimpia and C.D. FAS the previous fall. Cruz Azul, América, Toluca and Tijuana are the Mexican teams involved in the 2013-14 edition, and Houston must win their group if they want a chance at knocking off one of their southern neighbors.
5. It all comes down to winning—The players that step onto the field want to win, no matter the opponent. And at the end of the day, the CCL is another chance at a trophy—and history—for the Orange. No other MLS team has won the Champions League in its current format, and a tournament victory would grant the Dynamo a spot in next year’s Club World Cup to go up against the other regional champions from around the world. But in order to even think about winning another trophy, the Dynamo must first win their group this fall against W Connection and Árabe Unido.