One of the scenarios plaguing MLS teams as they struggle to match their Mexican-league counterparts is being played out on the eve of SuperLiga 2008, in which four teams from each country compete for a $1 million prize.
Along with depth and roster size, MLS teams suffer against foreign teams because they can't afford to stockpile a deep enough forward corps. Goal-scorers are the most prized commodity in soccer, and in terms of both salaries and length of contract guarantees, MLS teams struggle to accumulate enough talent.
Unless MLS changes its stance regarding contracts for its better domestic players, the league won't ascend to the next level whereby its best teams can consistently measure up against Mexican and South American opposition. The key is not just more money, but more commitment.
Traded by Los Angeles to Houston last season, he scored seven regular-season and playoff goals, then let his contract expire and left to play in Austria on a short-term deal that paid him slightly more than $100,000 for six months of work.
According to his agent,
McCabe insists the sticking point is not strictly salary, but the league's reluctance to guarantee contracts for more than one year, if that. "Guys can make more money in Europe, sure, but they can almost always get guaranteed contracts for two or three years, which is very hard to do in MLS for most players," says McCabe.
Houston does have
It has one of the league's best defenses, and last year narrowly lost to Pachuca on penalty kicks in the SuperLiga semifinals after a 2-2 tie, but having lost both Jaqua and
The Mexican teams are hamstrung somewhat by the timing of SuperLiga; the Mexican league doesn't start until next month and teams have been training for only a few weeks.
But unlike their MLS counterparts, Mexican teams don't have to recharge following a long offseason. Most of their players have been off only about a month, and several have played for Mexico in its CONCACAF qualifiers as well as club friendlies in the past two weeks.
Chivas de Guadalajara lost to the New York Red Bulls 1-0 and beat FC Dallas 2-1 to prepare for SuperLiga. Santos Laguna blasted Real Salt Lake 4-1 on Wednesday.
"Those who think SuperLiga are preseason are sorely mistaken," says Santos Laguna midfielder
In Group A, Atlante and Chivas de Guadalajara are matched with D.C. United and Houston. Defending SuperLiga champion Pachuca faces Santos Laguna, New England and Chivas USA in Group B. After round-robin play this weekend and next, the top two teams advance to the semifinals July 29 and 30, and the semifinal winners advance to the Aug. 5 final.
D.C. United and Houston, along with Los Angeles and FC Dallas, competed in SuperLiga last year, and all but Dallas reached the semifinals. The Galaxy beat D.C. United 2-0 before losing to Pachuca on penalties, 5-4, after a thrilling 1-1 tie in regulation and overtime at Home Depot Center.
"It's kind of a like a marketing thing, but at the same time we've complained in the past about not playing meaningful matches against quality international opponents," United goalkeeper
The Revs have reached four MLS Cups and lost them all, and are currently atop the MLS overall standings with a 10-4-3 record. SuperLiga is a rare opportunity for the franchise to show its wares internationally after spending the '08 preseason in Mexico, albeit in rather luxurious settings such as a resort in Cancún.
"I'm looking forward to having some home games at Gillette Stadium against some international competition as we don't get many changes to play internationally, especially at home," says goalkeeper
The Revs open their schedule Sunday against Santos Laguna and also play Pachuca at home Wednesday before traveling cross-country to face Chivas USA in Southern California at Cal State Fullerton's Titan Field.
Houston's Luck believes his team's success in the '07 SuperLiga helped drive up Mexican-American attendances at games late in the regular season and in the playoffs.
"The switch, or tipping point, to use that popular phrase, came with SuperLiga last year," he says of a team that got off to a rocky start with the local Latino populace by adopting, then quickly dropping, Houston "1836" for a nickname in reference to border battles fought during the middle of the 19th century.
"We beat Club América and had a great, raucous crowd," Luck said. "There was a classic scene: the dad in the Club América jersey and his son in the Dynamo jersey. Thirty years of assimilation was evident right there. Our Latino supporters said, 'You know, this Dynamo team's not bad.'
"A lot of people began to take notice. Our two playoff games were probably 50-50 crowds, and the 50 percent of the crowd that was Latino were singing and chanting. There was a tremendous atmosphere. They bring that authenticity toward soccer. They support it like the Brits or the Germans or whatever."
Ching has a similar perspective, both for competitive and marketing purposes.
"I think if MLS wants to grow our teams have to start doing well in competitions like this against Mexican clubs," he says. "It's a small step right now but hopefully we can eventually play against other leagues and in other tournaments."
Getting more attackers like Jaqua to team up with goal-scorers such as Ching can only aid the cause.