Their grueling six-week preseason schedule behind them, the San Jose Earthquakes have eyes set on tonight's opening leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal matchup with Toluca. And among the battle tested stands midfielder Cordell Cato, excited to be competing in the region's most prestigious club tournament.
"For me, it is the most important tournament we have in North America," said Cato. "It is like the equivalent of the European Champions League, and it is something we strive for here outside of MLS. Any player having an opportunity to play in this is huge."
The 21-year old Trinidad and Tobago native burst onto the MLS scene in 2013 after spending his rookie season with the Seattle Sounders. Judged by some to merely possess potential on his arrival, Cato worked tirelessly to prove he could contribute to the first team. After nearly 4 months warming the bench, he started 10 of the Quakes last 12 games of the season and made three appearances in the CCL group stage.
"Cordell's coming off a great second half of last season," said San Jose's head coach Mark Watson. "I think he was one of the big surprises last year. He kind of came into his own performance after performance and kept deserving to be out there again and again."
Entering preseason, the heir apparents at outside midfielder in the Earthquakes 4-4-2 starting formation were Cato and Shea Salinas. However, newcomer Atiba Harris has been pushing the two incumbents for a place on the first team, and the competition among the three wingers has been fierce. Keeping a spot in the Quakes' staring line-up was made even more imposing after the club signed Portuguese forward Yannick Djalo, a player Watson said could be used extensively on the wing.
"Last year is done," said Cato, "and all the guys including myself have to come out every day and prove to the coach why we should be starting. It's in the preseason you earn your minutes leading up to the first game which for us is the Champions League quarterfinal. We have to show now that we are ready."
Cato certainly impressed in his last preseason appearance for San Jose as he scored the lone goal in the Earthquakes 1-0 victory over Jamaica's Portmore United to close out the Rose City Invitational tournament in Portland last Saturday. Not known for his goal scoring - he has tallied only one career MLS goal - Cato is tasked more with providing service to the Earthquakes' talented forward corps, something U.S. international Chris Wondolowski appreciates.
"He is definitely more confident and a lot more comfortable on the ball," said Wondolowski. "His decision making is the biggest thing that's really improved and I think that's going to keep coming. The game is going to continue to slow down for him and I expect he's going to be big for us for this season."
The Quakes will need Cato to come up big in tonight's CCL opener as their opponent Toluca is riding high in Liga MX and is considered one of the favorites to win the tournament. But that is all good for the Caribbean kid as he welcomes the challenge faced by the Mexican club.
"It's going to be a tough game but one that we can live up to," said Cato. "Playing the best and then beating the best would make advancing an even bigger achievement."
Portions of this article originally appeared on concacaf.com