Monday February 23rd, 2015

Major League Soccer’s ambivalent relationship with the CONCACAF Champions League continues this week in Mexico and Costa Rica, where the Montreal Impact and D.C. United will kick off the continental competition’s quarterfinals with conservative expectations forged by years of collective frustration.

Mexico and Costa Rica not only are home to the region’s two most accomplished domestic leagues, they are where MLS’ Club World Cup dreams go to die. MLS squads have won only five of 32 home-and-home series against Mexican and Costa Rican opposition since CONCACAF adopted the two-game format back in 2002, typically because the away leg proves too much to handle. Whatever MLS has accomplished in the U.S. and Canada–building fan bases and stadiums, attracting marquee DPs and new investors–hasn’t translated to success on the global stage.

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Real Salt Lake’s run to the 2011 CCL finals was an outlier rather than a harbinger. The 2009 MLS Cup champ lucked into a CCL quarterfinal matchup with the Columbus Crew and overcame Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa in the semis. But RSL then fell short against Mexico’s CF Monterrey. No MLS club has won two home-and-home series versus Latin American opponents in the same CONCACAF tournament. Until that trend changes, MLS’ international impotence will continue.

“In CONCACAF, and I don’t care who you play, it’s a difficult exercise. The travel and everything that comes along with it, they’re never easy,” said D.C. manager Ben Olsen, who’s been a part of multiple CONCACAF campaigns as a player and coach.

CCL Quarterfinals Schedule
Series 1st Leg 2nd Leg
Pachuca vs. Montreal Impact​ 2/24 3/3
Olimpia vs. Herediano 2/24 3/5
Club America vs. Saprissa 2/25 3/4
D.C. United vs. Alajuelense 2/26 3/4

“I think the product in MLS has to get better for us to win CONCACAF,” Olsen continued. “The good news is that the product is moving forward each year. I don’t know what the future of our league is going to look like after this [new collective bargaining agreement], but certainly we’ll be in a better situation to improve our product and that’s the important thing at this point. How quick does that happen? I think there are MLS teams that can win CONCACAF. I think the [winter] timing of this has us lagging. The opportunity to win this is tough because of the timing of these competitive games.”

Olsen’s CBA reference cuts to the heart of the matter. MLS will be more competitive in CONCACAF when it becomes more interested and invested in CONCACAF. A good chunk of that is directly under the league’s control. There may be nothing MLS can do about the intimidating environment inside the Azteca or Saprissa, but it certainly could raise the average wage. Over 180 minutes, the team with fewer players earning five-figure salaries will have an advantage. Liga MX clubs, especially, boast the sort of roster depth and pay structure–especially below the top two or three highest earners–that generates results.

Compensation is one of two key issues currently contributing the collective bargaining stalemate that threatens the start of the MLS season. Free agency is the other. The league and players union are continuing their conversations this week in New York City.

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Meanwhile, Montreal will be in Mexico, where it will face four-time CONCACAF champion Pachuca on Tuesday evening (10 p.m. ET, FoxSports2, Univision).

The Impact qualified for this season’s CCL thanks to a 2014 Canadian Championship triumph that was the only highlight of a miserable, six-win MLS campaign. Coach Frank Klopas remains on the bench, but the roster features around a dozen new faces.

Montreal opened camp on Jan. 23 and has been training in Mexico for two weeks, hoping to get acclimated to the environment and each other. Pachuca, meanwhile, already is seven matches in to its Liga MX season.

United, which qualified for the 2014-15 CCL thanks to its stunning 2013 U.S. Open Cup triumph, improved dramatically last year and finished first in MLS’ Eastern Conference with a balanced, veteran roster. D.C. doesn’t field any million-dollar players and as a result, looks a bit more like that 2011 RSL side than the ones MLS might be counting on to finally break through in CONCACAF. United left for Costa Rica on Monday and will play two-time regional champ LD Alajuelense in the opening leg of their quarterfinal series on Thursday evening (8 p.m. ET, FoxSports2). D.C. has been training in Texas. LDA is 10 games into its regular season.

Both Montreal and D.C. benefited from easier draws in last fall’s group stage. Neither is in anything close to midseason form, and neither possesses the sort of star power that’s going to frighten a CONCACAF heavyweight.

As Olsen said, the timing is brutal, and there’s no way an MLS club coming off a three-month offseason can compensate in time. There’s no indication that MLS has pushed CONCACAF to alter the timing (Asia and Africa stage their continental tournaments over the calendar year) and there’s next to no domestic repercussion for teams that fail.

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No MLS coach has lost his job because his team stumbled in CCL. Players aren’t cut because of a poor performance during a March game in Mexico. Fan interest is tepid. The small boosts MLS gives to participating clubs–in the form of allocation dollars (one source called the sum, “not good enough for a good player, but not peanuts”) and additional charter flights–isn’t nearly sufficient to overcome the general disinterest in the competition.

MLS teams still use second-stringers in the group stage, knowing it could mean an earlier exit. This week, it’s the CBA that’s on everyone’s mind, not the CCL. In fact, Montreal and D.C. players will take the field over the next two weeks knowing an MLS season may not be waiting for them on the other side.

So the Impact and United are working with what they have. They’re certainly in it to win it. D.C. captain Bobby Boswell, who has played in a bunch of CONCACAF matches during a previous stint in Washington and with the Houston Dynamo, said there’s a “definite aura” surrounding the tournament thanks to MLS’ repeated failures.

“Obviously we want to be the first team win it, but I’m very aware of how tough it is,” Boswell said. “You’re playing very good teams at this stage, teams that go on the road and they don’t look as impressive then they go home and they’re like Barcelona sometimes … You know you’re going to have go down into maybe not the best environment and it’s all about how you prepare. Go expecting it’s going to be an uphill battle, ready for anything they throw at you.”

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Montreal split a pair of friendlies against reigning CCL champ Cruz Azul and then thumped third-tier Cuautla last week. D.C. recently faced USL expansion team Austin Aztex and then split two games with FC Dallas.

Boswell, now entering his 11th season, said the United coaching staff broke down video of those matches for the players and sent them links to LDA games as well.

“I just watched my first video session of a preseason game in my whole career. The coaches are taking it seriously. The players take it seriously,” Boswell said. “We’re watching video of preseason games trying to correct things and normally, it’s not that serious in preseason. Our season has already started. It’s in full swing.”

But at the same time, he acknowledged that ambivalence. He remembers going against his instincts–“I wasn’t particularly fond of Salt Lake,” he said–and cheering for RSL when they met Monterrey four years ago. He said MLS players really do have the sense that they’re representing their league and their country when they compete in the Champions League. Winning CONCACAF would leave a lasting legacy. But losing it won’t change anything, in part because that’s what typically happens and part because there are so many reasons at the ready.

“I want to win MLS Cup and that’s eventually what we’re all graded on,” he said. “So for these other ones, you want to win it, definitely. But I don’t think people are going to blow their heads off if they don’t get it done.”

Olsen, who was a rookie on the 1998 United team that won an abbreviated CONCACAF championship tournament played during the summer at RFK Stadium, said he believes an MLS club will win CCL within five years.

“It could be this year,” he said.

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He likes the continuity and consistency in his lineup. D.C.’s only significant loss is DP forward Eddie Johnson, who may not play this season because of an undisclosed health problem. Olsen has been working his team hard. But facts are facts. The timing, the rosters and the travel work against MLS clubs. Since the CCL expanded in 2008, MLS teams have beaten foreign sides in a two-game, knockout-round series only three times.

“We’ve become a long shot as we get to this stage. That’s O.K. Sometimes long shots have success,” Olsen said. “We know who we are. I think at that’s an important part of having success at this stage of CONCACAF. It’s going to take a team that is already pretty familiar with who they are … But I would say right now, I don’t think anybody’s giving us a snowball’s chance in hell. Both us and Montreal, I don’t think anybody here thinks we’ll make our mark in this tournament. And that’s just fine with me.”

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