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Even with added fatigue, travel, CONCACAF Champions League worth fighting for

Even a bad trip to Honduras has shaken Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi's hunger for CCL success. Even a bad trip to Honduras has shaken Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi's hunger for CCL success. (Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)

For MLS players, the CONCACAF Champions League can represent an opportunity or a burden.

Graham Zusi described the latter when asked if he’d experienced any quintessentially CONCACAF moments on the road. He had, and it started with a late-August diversion from Tegucigalpa’s notoriously harrowing Toncontín International Airport to San Pedro Sula, about 150 miles to the north.

“We had to drive four or four-and-a-half hours to our hotel. It wasn’t an easy four-and-a-half hours,” Zusi recalled. “We actually witnessed car accidents. We found out later somebody had died in one of them. It was just a small, extremely narrow road.”

Sporting Kansas City maintained its focus and defeated Olimpia, 2-0, then immediately re-boarded the bus for the long drive back to San Pedro Sula.

“Someone from customs was supposed to meet us at the airport because we had chartered down there,” Zusi said. “He ended up not showing up, so we were stuck outside the airport for another four hours. Things like that you can’t really plan for.”

There was speculation among the Sporting contingent that the absent official may have been an Olimpia fan. Their aircraft finally took off at around 5 a.m. Zusi and his colleagues arrived in Kansas City the following afternoon.

The Champions League is a tough test, one that just about every MLS entrant has failed. It’s not for everyone. One U.S. national team veteran once told me that he’d be happy to dispense with the mid-week trips to Latin America in order to rest or spend time with his family.

Zusi has heard similar.

“I’m not going to name names, but some people are relieved when they don’t have play Champions League anymore. It’s either the travel they don’t like or the extra games they don’t like,” he said.

“But I think it’s great.”

For clubs like SKC or the L.A. Galaxy, which have global ambition, the CCL is a platform. For the San Jose Earthquakes (who will miss the 2013 MLS playoffs) and the Houston Dynamo (who are on the precipice), the competition offers a silver lining now and the promise of bigger games to come. That quartet will conclude the CCL’s group stage this week, and there’s a chance the U.S. will have four quarterfinalists for the first time when the tournament resumes next spring (the Montreal Impact have been eliminated).

The Galaxy (3-0-0), who visit El Salvadora’s Isidro Metapán on Thursday, already are through. Sporting (2-0-1) needs at least a draw against visiting Olimpia on Wednesday. Houston (2-0-1) will advance as long as it doesn’t lose at Panama’s Árabe Unido on Thursday, and San Jose (1-2-0) is in with a win over Guatemala’s Heredia on Wednesday night.

“We had two goals coming into this season. One was to make the playoffs and the other was to advance out of the [CCL] group stage,” San Jose forward Chris Wondolowski told SI.com. “We weren’t able to accomplish one, but we feel we can accomplish the other one and we’re going to do absolutely everything we can. It’s going to be a long offseason and it’s going to be a great to have something to strive for, knowing that we’ll have that waiting for us, the knockout stage, when we get back to preseason.”

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MLS’ slow and steady growth, as well as the gap between it and the world’s best leagues, can be measured in part by the Champions League record book. In 2008-09, the first season that included group-stage competition, the four MLS entrants won a humiliating two games combined and produced one quarterfinalist (Houston). Two years later there were two quarterfinalists and Real Salt Lake came within a goal of winning the title. That success came thanks in part to a forgiving draw, but also to MLS clubs’ increasing comfort in Latin America.

“Seeing how close they were, it was neat,” Zusi recalled. “If there’s an MLS team going deep into this tournament, everybody kind of backs them.”

In the fall of 2011, FC Dallas and the Seattle Sounders became the first MLS teams to win in Mexico. Last season there were two semifinalists, and the league’s five entrants combined to finish with a 16-8-6 CCL record.

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There will always be a bit of CONCACAF chaos, but as MLS clubs gradually improve and become more comfortable playing foreign opposition, the CCL – and the FIFA Club World Cup berth that goes to the winner – should become a more enticing prospect.

“Now we go down there believing we can win every game, and that kind of just shows how far we’ve come,” said Wondolowski, who scored the opening goal of San Jose’s 3-0 CCL win over Montreal last month. “It adds a little bit to the season, yeah, and it makes you a little bit more tired and it’s a little bit more difficult. But it’s rewarding as well. You can showcase how deep your team is and that’s something we’ve started to take pride in.… That’s why were able to make a run here as of late. We’ve had a deeper roster and guys who can plug in and do the job. That’s very important and helps grow the league.”

If there are four MLS clubs in next spring’s quarterfinals, people certainly will take notice. And the chances of the CCL trophy coming north of the border for the first time (D.C. United and the L.A. Galaxy won the old single-elimination CONCACAF Champions Cup in 1998 and 2000, respectively) will increase. Wondolowski and Zusi believe that attention and respect are worth the extra effort.

“This club wants to be the best club in our country,” Zusi said of Sporting. “It has aspirations to be one of the best clubs, eventually, in North and South America. We take every chance we can to try to measure ourselves against some of the better teams around the world. The Champions League, for us, is a big deal.”

He continued, “While it may not be something that Americans or people in general take seriously, it’s another competition I want to get my hands on. If we do well, we’ll be putting our name out there to teams in other countries. We’ll earn some respect.”

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