KENNESAW, Ga. – Major League Soccer begins its 24th season this weekend, still craving a smidgen of respect on the world stage.
Sure, the league keeps adding teams , building new stadiums and improving the quality of play. But MLS continues to be viewed by many as nothing more than a farm system-slash-rest home, a place where young players can develop and fading stars can collect a few more big paychecks.
If MLS wants to really demonstrate how far it has come in nearly a quarter-century, there's no better place to start than right at home.
The league must show it can compete with its neighbor to the south.
Mexico's Liga MX has dominated the CONCACAF Champions League, winning every title in the North American tournament since the current format went into effect in 2008.
Until that streak ends, MLS will always be viewed as a second-rate outfit, even in its own backyard.
"This tournament is a big deal," said Michael Parkhurst, captain of reigning MLS Cup champion Atlanta United. "The onus is on us as players and us as a league to win this tournament at some point in the near future."
While MLS begins its regular season with 10 games on Saturday (including the debut of its 24th franchise, FC Cincinnati), the Champions League is already up and running.
Four of its five representatives advanced to the quarterfinals, including Atlanta United, along with three teams from Liga MX. This next round should be especially telling, with three of the four matchups pitting the MLS against its Mexican rival.
In recent years, MLS has placed far more emphasis on CONCACAF's 16-team tournament, viewing it as one way to raise the league's lackluster global profile.
For example, the top MLS team in FiveThirtyEight's ranking of 639 clubs around the world is Atlanta United at No. 177 – sandwiched between Gent from Belgium's First Division and Konyaspor from Turkey's Super Lig. Four teams from Liga MX are ranked higher.
A year ago, then-reigning MLS Cup champion Toronto FC made no secret that it viewed the Champions League as a top priority, knocking off a pair of Mexican teams – UANL and América – before losing to Guadalajara on penalty kicks in a compelling final.
Toronto's quest took a major toll on its performance in the domestic competition. The team didn't even make the MLS playoffs, reduced to mere spectators while Atlanta United romped to the league championship in only its second season.
In another jarring twist, Toronto FC failed to advance from the opening round of this year's Champions League, routed from the competition on a 5-1 aggregate by Panamanian club Independiente, the only team to make the quarterfinals from outside the United States and Mexico.
The other MLS representatives fared much better.
After a dismal 3-1 loss to Costa Rica's Herediano in the first leg, Atlanta United bounced back with a dominating 4-0 victory Thursday night. New York Red Bulls, the reigning MLS Supporters' Shield winner, breezed past Atlético Pantoja of the Dominican Republic by a cumulative 5-0. Most impressive of all, Sporting Kansas City routed one of the Mexican teams, Toluca, with 3-0 and 2-0 victories – the clincher coming Thursday night on the road, where Sporting was serenaded with chants of "Ole!" from Toluca fans.
"I think the guys realized that their fans appreciated our play," coach Peter Vermes told reporters afterward. "We didn't come just to sit back and absorb pressure. We came to play our way and they appreciated it, and I think they appreciated the entertainment aspect of it. That's always a very positive thing."
Now it's on to the quarterfinals, which begin next week with the first of two legs: Atlanta United faces Monterrey, Houston Dynamo takes on UANL and the Red Bulls meet Santos Laguna. (Sporting Kansas City is paired with Independiente in the only matchup that isn't MLS vs. Liga MX.)
From the owner all the way down to the players, Atlanta United has made it clear that the Champions League is its top priority at the moment, even as it prepares to defend its MLS title beginning with Sunday's league opener at D.C. United.
The young franchise has already drawn some grudging admiration on the world stage, setting numerous attendance records – most notably, averaging more than 53,000 for its league games in 2018 – and pocketing an MLS-record $27 million transfer fee to ship star midfielder Miguel Almiron to Newcastle in England's mighty Premier League.
Atlanta wants to be more than just a big fish in a small pond. It wants to build a global brand. It wants to raise expectations for everyone in MLS.
A victory in the CONCACAF Champions League would be another building block in that daunting quest.
"We were very close last year as a league with Toronto and the run that they made," Parkhurst said. "We want to represent ourselves, represent the league. Any tournament that we're in, we want to win."
United must navigate a grueling stretch of six games in 18 days, while being mindful of the toll it took on Toronto last year. The team's depth will be stretched to the limits, another test of how far MLS has come.
While Almiron left some big shoes to fill, United pulled off a splashy signing of its own by acquiring South American player of the year Pity Martinez , who led Argentina's River Plate to the Copa Libertadores championship – the world's second-most prestigious club tournament after Europe's Champions League.
Martinez said he likes to win championships. He expects to lead Atlanta United to a few more titles.
The CONCACAF Champions League would be a good place to start.
For Atlanta – and all of Major League Soccer.
– Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry