The MLS regular season kicked off with much fanfare this past weekend and for good reason. Entering its 18th season, there’s plenty to be excited about with the league. But another competition kicks off today, one that’s arguably more important because it provides the chance for MLS to take the next step in its progression: the CONCACAF Champions League.
MLS History In the CCL
Created in 1962 as the equivalent to Europe’s Champions League, the Champions Cup, as the CCL was called until 2008, didn’t have American representation in the final until 1997 when Cruz Azul defeated the LA Galaxy 5-3. The Champions Cup era was a relatively successful one for MLS as DC United and LA combined for three finals appearances in a four-year period from 1997-2000, with both teams claiming one title apiece. But MLS expansion, while helping the league create a solid foundation, has naturally led to the death of stacked teams with as much talent as those DC and LA sides of the late ‘90s.
Since the tournament rebranded under the CONCACAF Champions League moniker, it’s been much tougher sledding for MLS clubs. The 2010-11 version of the tournament was the first time MLS had a team get past the quarterfinal round when Real Salt Lake made the final before losing in heart-breaking fashion to Monterey. Other than RSL it’s been a trail of failures at the hands of Mexican opposition for MLS – of the seven MLS teams that have qualified for the knockout stages since 2008-09, Mexican teams have knocked out five, while the other two exits were the result of matchups featuring two MLS teams.
Why the CCL?
Despite all the benefits that would come with winning the CONCACAF Champions League (we’ll get to those) only a few teams take the tournament seriously. Most clubs that qualify opt to field reserve-heavy sides rather than regular starters. That may work fine for the group stages when facing Caribbean minnows, but against talented Mexican sides fielding first-choice XIs, it won’t cut it. Dominic Kinnear, whose Houston side has a legitimate chance to win the competition, has already said he’s more focused on MLS and will likely play reserves in the team’s quarterfinal matchup with Santos Laguna. Why should Kinear and all the other MLS teams want to win the CONCACAF Champions League you ask? Simple: money and respect.
As we’ve seen time and time again, allocation money is a precious resource that allows clubs to keep talented teams together even with salary cap constraints. But in MLS, allocation money is difficult to come by for successful teams. A refresher from MLS’ 2013 roster rules:
Allocation Money will be awarded for the following:
1. Failure to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs
2. The transfer of a player to a club outside of MLS for value
3. Expansion Status
4. Qualification for the CONCACAF Champions League
5. Funds from purchased third designated player roster spots
Not a lot of rewards for success. But qualification for the CCL is rewarded. And one of the avenues for qualifying is winning the tournament. It may seem like an unrealistic qualifying method to rely on, but consider the alternatives: US Open Cup (probably the best chance here as most of the league also doesn’t take this tournament seriously), Supporters Shield (difficult to sustain success over 34 games in a league designed for parity) or making the MLS Cup Final (which has proven to be unpredictable time and time again). In addition to the allocation money, winning the tournament and qualifying for the Club World Cup also yields financial benefit. Prize money ranges from $500,000 for seventh place to $5 million for the winner. That kind of cash is a huge windfall for an MLS team that can reinvest the money in academy programs, facilities or even new designated players.
“Respect” is harder to quantify and may not provide as tangible a benefit, but being the first team to win the Champions League and represent MLS in the Club World Cup definitely means something. It’s the final hurdle this league hasn’t yet cleared. That alone should be enough to motivate any team or coach, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to be for the majority of the league. That will have to change for MLS clubs to begin making noise in the CCL.
So now you’re convinced and ready to demand your club make a push for CCL glory. How do they go about it? Fear not, here’s the blueprint for an MLS club to win the CCL.
Step 1: Build Depth
Playing reserves in the knockout rounds may not work, but depth is critical in surviving the group stage of the tournament. Against some of the weaker Central American and Caribbean teams, reserve players are crucial to picking up points while not sacrificing league games. It also goes without saying that a deep bench provides cover for the injuries and suspensions that are unavoidable with the grind of the MLS season.
Step 2: Play Your Starters
Above all else, this is the most important key for success. As long as the salary cap remains where it is, MLS teams will always struggle to match Liga MX sides in terms of depth. There’s an undeniable gap between spots 12-24 on an MLS team and a Liga MX team, but the gap between spots 1-11 is much less pronounced. A team like Seattle, LA or Houston has a shot against a Mexican side, provided the MLS club has its best players on the pitch. Which leads into the next point:
Step 3: Forgo the start of the MLS regular season
One of the excuses MLS coaches use for overlooking the CCL is they’re “focused on MLS Cup.” But a Champions League title doesn’t have to come at the cost of an MLS crown. As the Galaxy showed last year, seeding is irrelevant. Teams hit their stride at the right time and we end up with a four-five matchup in the final. With the home-and-home format of the CCL knockout rounds, there are six games to contend with for a team that makes the final. So starters would “miss” a maximum of six league games and that’s assuming no starters play in both a league and CCL game. Step 1 ties in here as well; good depth will allow an MLS team to field its best players in Champions League without actually sacrificing too many points in the league.
Step 4: Hold Serve on the road in Mexico, then Protect the Fortress
Of the 40 teams that have made the knockout rounds from 2008-09 to this year’s tournament, only 10 have been from leagues other than Liga MX or MLS. None of those 10 teams has ever beaten a MLS or Mexican side in knockout play. Translation: the road to CCL glory goes through Mexico. MLS teams have been notoriously bad on Mexican soil so it goes without saying a positive result in the away leg is paramount to advancing. 1-0 or 2-1 defeats or any draw on the road is ideal while home games should mean clean sheets and 2+ goals.
The final piece of the puzzle is MLS itself. Commissioner Don Garber reiterated at the beginning of this season that winning the CCL is a priority. It’s great to hear the commissioner understands the value of the tournament, but the league needs to put some clout behind its words. Increasing amounts of allocation money should be awarded for each round an MLS team advances with a substantial prize for actually winning. Mexican dominance of the CCL is coming to an end. It may not be this year, but with the right game plan, an MLS team will eventually represent North American in the Club World Cup.
As long as the salary cap remains where it is, MLS teams will always struggle to match Liga MX sides in terms of depth, but the gap between