FC Dallas may still have to qualify for this year's CONCACAF Champions League, but they are justifiably one of MLS's best hopes for the knockout stage. Dallas is in very strong form in league play, features one of the best defenses in the league, and has a legitimate MVP candidate in Brek Shea. If an MLS team is up to the job of getting through their CCL group, it's likely the red-hot Hoops
However, any talk of winning Group C must wait until after the qualifying round, where Schellas Hyndman and co. take on El Salvador's Alianza FC. Alianza got into the CCL by winning the the 2011 Clausura and are among El Salvador's most popular clubs. Los Paquidermos feature several regulars for the Salvadoran national team, including wingers Christian Castillo (a washout at DC United) and Julio Martinez (who met a similar fate with the Chicago Fire) and veteran striker Rudis Corrales. Unfortunately for Alianza, they'll be playing Dallas without Rodolfo Zelaya, whose star turn in the recent Gold Cup earned him a transfer to Russian club Alania Vladikavkaz.
Even with Zelaya, Alianza would very much be the underdog here. It is doubtful that Castillo and Martinez can create against a top MLS defense given their previous struggles in the league, and Corrales will probably struggle against George John and Ugo Ihemelu due to his lack of size. Dallas might not steamroll Alianza if they use second-choice players, but there is still little chance that Hyndman's well-drilled reserves will drop the ball if called upon.
In the group stage itself, Dallas will face competition from Pumas UNAM for first place. Pumas has a long commitment to very attack-minded play; this is a club that has no qualms about getting into a 4-3 shootout. In the past, Pumas has shown a tendency to mix in plenty of youth team players, yet they still tend to get results home and away in the CCL. It is also quite likely that Pizza Hut Park will see a rare big crowd when Pumas travels north, which could end up being a crucial factor in the race to win Group C.
Beyond Pumas, though, Dallas should have a fairly easy time. Toronto FC should have no problems qualifying over Real Esteli, and anyone that follows MLS knows that the Texans are miles ahead of TFC in just about every on-field category. However, this could be a double-edged sword if Dallas underestimates a Toronto team that appears to have added some quality pieces to their lineup. TFC managed to beat Cruz Azul and tie Real Salt Lake at BMO Field in last year's group stage, so Dallas will need to give a good account of themselves to take the expected victories from the Reds.
Tauro FC fills out Group C for Dallas. The Panamanians may be the rare team that can approach the level of speed and strength possessed by Dallas, but the similarities more or less end there. Dallas will do well to keep their heads against Tauro, who have some hot-headed players; staying calm amidst provocation could easily see Dallas playing up a man. In Tauro's previous CCL matches, they've also shown a tendency to tire rather easily, so keeping the ball and forcing them to chase would likely work in FCD's favor.
Ultimately, there's a pretty clear line between the two teams that should advance from this group and the two teams that likely will fight to avoid last. Dallas and Pumas are the class of Group C, and Dallas has a good enough squad to fancy themselves as a potential group winner. Dallas should be able to take the points they need to ensure qualification from Toronto and Tauro, so their biggest game is likely to be their home match against Pumas. Win that, and they'll have every chance at becoming the second MLS club to win a CCL group.