Cruz Azul celebrates its CONCACAF Champions League triumph over Toluca Wednesday night. (Alejandro Ayala/Xinhua/Zumapress)
Veteran Mexican midfielder Gerardo Torrado, who had lost seven major finals as a member of Cruz Azul, was in tears. Meanwhile, Toluca coach José Cardozo and one of his players angrily confronted the referee. Their desperation and sense of loss was palpable.
La Máquina fans gathered on Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City, and the Cruz Azul players inside Toluca’s noisy Estadio Nemesio Díez celebrated joyously with that hideous, but meaningful, black and gold trophy. It seemed that just about everyone connected to Wednesday’s CONCACAF Champions League finale cared deeply about the dramatic 1-1 result. Cruz Azul had won a record sixth continental title and will represent the region at December's FIFA Club World Cup. It was an historic night.
The problem is, there’s little indication that anyone outside Mexico felt that connection.
During the day, the U.S. soccer conversation focused on the showdown between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, two giant clubs competing in a tournament that neutrals actually follow. Wednesday night, while Mexican teams played for CONCACAF bragging rights for the fifth time in six years, there seemed to be significantly more interest in the New York Red Bulls-Houston Dynamo tilt in New Jersey. Mainstream American websites all but ignored it. Paul Scholes showing up at Manchester United practice was more newsworthy.
Attention evaporated south of the Mexican border as well. Veteran Costa Rican journalist Gustavo Jiménez, a friend of Planet Fútbol who spent years as a reporter and editor at La Nacion, said Ticos' interest in the CCL "falls almost to the floor" once their clubs are knocked out. No one would doubt that Costa Ricans love their soccer, but Jiménez said, "Only hardcore fans know Cruz Azul won .... Fans and media are interested as long as our teams are alive. After that, we'd rather watch the soap opera."
CONCACAF first crowned a club champion in 1962. It launched the Champions League format six years ago. That's more than enough time to generate a bit of traction. Wednesday's final should have been an event -- a destination and focal point for fans and media from Canada to the Cayman Islands. Instead, there was almost deafening indifference. The CCL is a relatively fair, reasonably well-run affair that serves its purpose crowning a regional champion. But each year, as it deteriorates into a Liga MX intramural tournament, neutrals turn their backs. The CCL should unify CONCACAF. Instead, it alienates.
Mexican dominance is the reason. Liga MX clubs have claimed nine consecutive continental crowns -- easily a world record for a single country. During that span, only two teams from outside Mexico even advanced to the finals. Costa Rica's Deportivo Saprissa eliminated Atlante on its way to the silver medal in 2008, and Real Salt Lake avoided Mexican opposition before falling to Monterrey in 2011. Typically, Mexican teams are eliminated only by other Mexican teams. In 22 home-and-home series between Liga MX and MLS clubs in CONCACAF play, the U.S. or Canadian side has advanced only twice. Not only does the CCL feel exclusive -- it feels inevitable.
BIRD: Cruz Azul tops Toluca after away draw to claim CCL title
CONCACAF has worked with participating clubs to market CCL matches locally, and in 2012 it streamlined the group stage, lightening the schedule and making individual games more meaningful. In MLS markets, at least, that's been somewhat successful. Attendances are reasonably good. Whether the governing body could, or should, take more significant steps to make the tournament more competitive is a tough question to consider.
Is it CONCACAF's fault that MLS and Central American teams can't match Mexico? How should the governing body balance competitive interests with a desire to get people to actually care about its showpiece club tournament? Rigging the bracket to ensure a non-Mexican club makes the finals just seems wrong.
Ultimately, the burden falls on both CONCACAF and its constituent leagues. MLS' annual failure clearly hurts more than its own image -- it damages CONCACAF's asset. Potential sponsorship, TV and merchandise revenue all surely fall as each successive country stops paying attention. Both MLS and CONCACAF have incentive to cooperate and build a tournament whose outcome interests fans regardless of their own particular affiliation. That's how successful events, from the Super Bowl to the UEFA Champions League, work.
Jiménez said that the occasional good result, like Alajuelense's group-stage triumph over Club América last fall, leaves Costa Ricans believing that future success is within reach. For MLS, it's not so simple. The league pays lip service to the CCL and has offered participants help here and there (such as extra allocation money or scheduling considerations), but it's time to think bigger.
The collective bargaining agreement between MLS and the players union expires this winter. A significant lift in each club's salary budget, say from the current $3.1 million to $5 million, would be a nice way to invest the recent expansion fee windfall. The combined increase still would represent less than half the amount paid by New York City FC and would help MLS teams retain quality players, make new signings and invest in the depth required to handle league and CCL congestion. An occasional Club World Cup berth would represent a potentially lucrative return on that investment.
MLS also needs to address the bigger picture by lobbying CONCACAF to alter the CCL schedule. The fall-to-spring format not only makes the Mexican mountain that much harder to climb because MLS clubs are in preseason form when the knockout stage commences, it damages the eventual champion's Club World Cup prospects. With eight months separating CCL success and the CWC quarterfinals, Mexican teams have fallen at the first hurdle in three of the past four years. Meanwhile, two African sides advanced to the final. Asian squads have finished third on three occasions since Mexico's CONCACAF streak started in 2006. Monterrey claimed Mexico's only bronze in 2012.
Teams change in eight months (imagine Cruz Azul without on-loan midfielder Marco Fabián.) Africa and Asia conclude their championships in the fall and send the winners to the CWC on a roll. Add the fact that an MLS club entering the CCL quarterfinals is at least 15 months removed from booking its spot in the tournament, and you have a competition that isn't putting teams in position to play their best.
A shift would generate a year of qualification disruption (a brief playoff might be required in Mexico and Central American countries), but the payoff could be significant. MLS clubs would hit the knockout rounds in better form (and could wrap them up by early October) and Mexican clubs, should they continue to triumph, will be better positioned for the world stage. Actual competition would ensue.
There's incentive for everyone, not only because so much good could come from a more competitive and popular CCL, but because the widespread apathy toward the region's most important club competition further cements CONCACAF's third-rate status. Relevance starts from within.