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Next big step for MLS: Winning CONCACAF Champions League

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Kei Kamara and Sporting KC travel to Nicaragua to face Real Esteli to kick off the 2013-14 CCL campaign.

Those who might have become disenchanted by Major League Soccer's focus on slow and measured growth have had a pretty satisfying week.

There's a new owner in Columbus, a new superstar in Seattle and during last Wednesday's All-Star game, commissioner Don Garber unveiled plans to add four new clubs by 2020. Those aren't baby steps. They're the sort of headlines that make MLS' quest to become one of the world's top leagues by 2022 seem relatively more realistic.

Now comes the reality check. Progress in the boardroom and at the turnstiles is surpassing progress on the field. MLS teams may have built and filled stadiums, signed big-name players, launched academies and put down roots in their communities. But they still haven't won when it matters most. They haven't won the CONCACAF Champions League or appeared at the Club World Cup.

"We want MLS to grow at a fast rate. The only way you can really do that is by playing in international tournaments and winning them," Houston Dynamo coach Dom Kinnear said. "The pathway to global acceptance for this league on a competitive level is the CONCACAF club championship."

That pursuit resumes Wednesday in Montreal and Nicaragua as the 2013-14 CCL kicks off. The Impact, as Canadian champion, will play host to the San Jose Earthquakes, while Sporting Kansas City gets its first taste of continental competition in eight years when it visits Real EstelĂ­'s Estadio Independencia in Nicaragua.

Trips such as that have been part of the problem. Playing in Latin America is perilous, and since 2002, when MLS clubs had to start hitting the road, the league's CCL results have ranged from frustrating to embarrassing. Only one MLS team during that span has advanced to the finals (Real Salt Lake in 2011) and only once has an MLS club ousted a Mexican rival from the tournament (the Seattle Sounders, last spring).

"Baby steps," is how RSL GM Garth Lagerwey described the league's assault on that elusive CONCACAF crown. "I think we're in the Himalayas. We're in base camp and now we've got to climb Everest. But scaling Everest isn't just winning the tournament, but consistently competing for it and putting multiple teams in the end stages. To be one of the best leagues, we have to be better than Mexico. ... We are clearly making progress, but we clearly have work to do."

"To be one of the best leagues, we have to be better than Mexico. ... We are clearly making progress but we clearly have work to do.''
Real Salt Lake GM Garth Lagerwey

That "progress" is evident on paper, but it's probably not going to satisfy those who insist that legitimacy must be earned on the field. Despite all the new stadiums, new players and new franchises, MLS clubs are improving only gradually and haven't been able to solve their Mexican rivals.

Here's what they have done: In 2008-09, the first season featuring the CCL group stage format, four MLS clubs won a pathetic two games combined. Five entrants won seven matches the following season. In 2010-11, two MLS teams advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time and RSL came within a goal of winning the title. In the fall of 2011, FC Dallas and the Seattle Sounders became the first MLS clubs to win matches in Mexico. In each of the past two tournaments, three MLS clubs have qualified for the final eight. But none made the final two.

Baby steps.

"I think we've gotten to the point now, MLS has, where advancing out of the round robin -- I wouldn't say it's a given -- but it's gotten to the point where it's expected," said Kinnear, whose Dynamo will join Montreal, San Jose, Sporting and the L.A. Galaxy in this season's Champions League. "The last hurdle is beating a Mexican team over two legs in the finals. ... I think we can do it. But things have to really fall into place for a team to do that."

While MLS clubs now routinely get past opposition from Central America and the Caribbean, Mexico remains the lofty standard. Liga MX representatives are 45-19-14 against MLS in CONCACAF play all-time and have won eight consecutive titles.

Money is a significant part of the reason.

Although there are obviously differences between teams in both countries, Lagerwey said that it was fair to expect a given Mexican club to spend two-to-three times more on player salaries than an MLS counterpart.

"That's not including transfer fees they'd pay for players," he said. "All in all it's probably five times in terms of money spent on players."

"Right now economically we're a little bit behind," Kinnear said. "It's not an excuse. It's a reality."

Not only does that money buy MLS killers like Monterrey forwards Humberto Suazo and Aldo de Nigris (who's now with Chivas de Guadalajara), it furnishes the depth that's so crucial in midweek competitions requiring arduous or exotic travel.

MLS offers up a bit of extra funding for its CCL representatives and pays out more to those teams advancing to the quarterfinals. The extra cash might help a club sweeten an offer and retain a decent player it might otherwise have to let go, but it's not nearly enough to close the gap with the Mexican powers.

"It's sort of like the army," Sporting coach Peter Vermes said. "You've got to have a 'Plan B' and a 'Plan C' always ready. Something's always going to happen to 'Plan A'. It's very difficult to go and scout these teams, but we've got some film on them. And as much as we've worked on getting some depth in our team, right now we're suffering quite a few injuries and it's a little challenging at the moment."

He said his club's first foray into the CCL will be "one of those things where it's going to be learning on the job."

MLS tries to help its CCL participants in other ways. It lifts restrictions on charter flights (they're limited in order to prevent wealthier teams from exploiting that advantage) and even moves regular season games around to make the schedule less arduous. But none of that has produced the quantum leap the league is looking for.

At the moment, Mexican clubs are still too deep, too talented and too inhospitable at home. One of them -- Club Tijuana, Toluca, Club América or Cruz Azul -- will be heavily favored to lift the trophy next spring.

"It has to go perfectly for you," Kinnear said when asked what it would take for an MLS outfit to get over that last hurdle. "You need (the referee's) decisions to go for you. Your team needs to be firing and playing well. You need a little bit of luck over two games. As far as the economics, we're not there and I think everybody understands that. But I think the MLS fan wants success right now."

He continued, "We're a young league -- 18 years in. We understand that. I think we're close. There are some factors that are still kind of against us, but these factors aren't big enough that we shouldn't be overcoming them soon."

Vermes said he hoped the tournament would help instill in his squad the same mentality, composure and game management so evident in previous Mexican champions.

"It'll make us a stronger team," he said.

And that will help forge a stronger MLS.

"Your stature grows as your team becomes more and more competitive within (CCL). It's important to have good performances in these competitions, for sure," he said. "Is it the final piece to the puzzle? I don't know. I think our league is growing leaps and bounds right now without Champions League, but this is a competition that runs alongside of it. It's become an important part of it. Everything has to evolve together. You can't lag behind."

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