The start of a new season engenders feelings of excitement and optimism. For MLS, it also typically comes with an unwelcome punch to the gut. At this time of year, almost every year, the collective satisfaction over the league’s growth, along with individual clubs’ optimistic plans for the pursuit of silverware, are served with a heaping helping of on-field humility. The CONCACAF Champions League knockout rounds—the first competitive soccer of the campaign—begin. And the season starts with a thud.
Only two MLS teams remained standing at this time in 2015. One was D.C. United, which was obliterated by Costa Rica’s LD Alajuelense in the opener of their CCL quarterfinal series. The other was the Montreal Impact, which finished with MLS’s worst record the year before but qualified for the quarters thanks to a 2014 triumph in the Canadian qualifier and then three surprising wins (half its MLS total) in the CCL group stage. Montreal was no one’s choice to beat the odds.
Entering last year’s CCL knockouts, MLS clubs had won just three of 11 home-and-home series against foreign opposition (quarters or beyond) since the competition’s 2008 expansion. While that was frustrating, it was hardly a shock. Not only were foreign clubs, especially Mexican, unconstrained by the rules that govern MLS, they were in season. By the end of February, when many MLS teams had gone more than 100 days without a competitive contest, Liga MX foes were hitting their stride.
So the Impact, with the blessing of ambitious owner Joey Saputo, re-calibrated those odds.
The club overhauled its roster and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and 17 days in Mexico leading up to the quarterfinal opener at Pachuca. It was unprecedented preseason commitment, and it led to a 2-2 draw at the Estadio Hidalgo that set up the Impact for advancement one week later. Montreal postponed its home MLS opener and, after squeaking by LDA in the semis, went back to Mexico for an additional week ahead of its showdown with Club América.
Accustomed to the altitude and undaunted by their surroundings, the Impact left Azteca level at 1-1 and nearly pulled off the improbable seven days later at the Stade Olympique before falling, 5-3, on aggregate.
The run was exhilarating but exhausting. Montreal won three of 11 MLS matches over the summer and at the end of August, coach Frank Klopas was fired. CCL silver had come at a high price.
“Advancing in CONCACAF takes a huge toll on teams,” said D.C. United coach Ben Olsen, who won the old Champions Cup in 1998 and will manage his club Tuesday night in its quarterfinal opener at Mexico’s Querétaro. “Of course, you want to advance because this is what we do. This is what we’re paid for—to advance and win and we’ll do our best to do that and figure this out.”
Ultimately, Olsen said, “Everybody’s going to skin this thing differently. I don’t think there’s one magic bullet to winning CONCACAF.”
MLS will hope he’s right, because the four MLS clubs opening their quarterfinal campaigns this week have decided against following Montreal’s path.
D.C., Real Salt Lake, the Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy—all just a CBA-mandated month into preseason—will face Mexican opponents that already are seven games into their league campaigns. MLS teams have won only two of 14 knockout round series against Liga MX clubs in the CCL era (Seattle beat Tigres UANL in 2013) and thanks to the unforgiving timing, all four should be considered underdogs again. While Montreal forced itself from its comfort zone last year, this season’s MLS hopefuls have decided that adding an extra wrinkle or two to their standard routine is the best way to handle the CONCACAF gauntlet. There’s only so much you can do to try to make up for lost time.
D.C. United vs. Queretaro
Feb. 23, 8 p.m. (ET)
March 1, 8 p.m.
Seattle Sounders vs. Club America
Feb. 23, 10 p.m.
March 2, 8 p.m.
Real Salt Lake vs. Tigres UANL
Feb. 24, 8 p.m.
March 2, 10 p.m.
LA Galaxy vs. Santos Laguna
Feb. 24, 10 p.m.
March 1, 10 p.m.
“We definitely took a look at Montreal’s schedule from last year and took great consideration as to whether or not we should mirror their preparation,” said RSL general manager Craig Waibel, whose team plays at Tigres on Wednesday.
“When we looked at the body of our roster versus theirs, we have a heavily Latin-based roster so the environments of Central America, the environment of Mexico, are not foreign to our roster," he said. "Most of our guys, in fact, have played there quite a bit one way or another, so we didn’t feel it was new in terms of preparing for the environment itself.”
The only other MLS club to advance to the CCL finals, Salt Lake paved its way to a 2011 showdown with Monterrey with a quarterfinal win over the Columbus Crew. RSL had its legs by the time it met Deportivo Saprissa in the semis. Most MLS teams, however, haven’t had the fitness, energy or depth to compete at this stage. The travel is too hard and the games come too early.
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“I think we’re at a competitive disadvantage. I think it’s unfair,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told SI’s Planet Fútbol podcast last month. “Our league, for reasons that I don’t think anybody argues with, plays by a different schedule than the rest of the CONCACAF leagues do. But if CONCACAF wants to have a tournament that can drive real value to hopefully new leadership in our confederation, than the best way to do it is to have a competition that ensures they have the best competition. Having our teams in preseason and not yet playing full time against Mexican clubs that are at their peak doesn’t seem to be fair to me.”
The schedule has hurt both MLS and Liga MX, whose teams win CCL and then wait some eight months before heading to the Club World Cup, where they’ve been awful. There have been discussions about shifting the CCL calendar to play the group stage in the spring and the knockout rounds in the fall, similar to the way Asia and Africa structure their continental championships.
As CONCACAF’s leadership has faced indictment and overhaul, however, progress on a CCL revamp has slowed. And a shift would come with considerable complications. Pushing the start of the 2016-17 tournament back to the spring of 2017, for example, would double the number of MLS entrants. Either the competition would have to expand, or some qualifiers would be told they must miss out.
Olsen said he’d be fine with simply starting the quarterfinals later in the spring.
“We decided that for us, it’s best to stick with what we do,” he told SI.com Sunday on his way to Mexico. D.C. spent preseason in Florida and was laying over in Houston on its way to Querétaro. “Obviously the periodization process has to be sped up a degree to get your men as close to 90 minutes fit as possible for this game. But it’s impossible. You can’t. So in some ways, if you try to do that, you’re putting your players in a very risky environment. It has to change, first and foremost, the scheduling of this. It has to change to level the playing field.”
Like its compatriots, United has preseason roster questions. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid (knee) is out and forward Chris Rolfe (tendinitis) has been ailing. Newcomers Luciano Acosta, Marcelo Sarvas and Patrick Nyarko (former Sounder Lamar Neagle is cup-tied) alter the options and chemistry. D.C. has five preseason games under its belt and now faces its stiffest test in months at the Estadio Corregidora, which sits some 2,000 meters above sea level.
“Sometimes it’s about what type of player you have,” he said. “Are they willing to dig in and suffer at altitude because you’re not fit, and have the experience and savvy to go in an away environment when you’re not at your best and get a result. That can be overlooked in this whole deal.”
RSL altered its preseason slightly, opting to spend time in San Diego rather than at its academy outside Phoenix. It played a friendly at Mexico’s Club Tijuana, which it lost, 1-0, and took a charter flight to Monterrey on Monday. MLS tries to help clubs involved in CCL by relaxing charter limitations and moving regular season games if necessary, but ultimately, the league and teams believe more significant accommodation is required.
“I give the ownership of Montreal a ton of credit for investing the way they did. I’m not comfortable in my position to suggest we equal that task and financial commitment given the lack of preparation time we’re given in this tournament,” Waibel said. “I played in this tournament [with the Houston Dynamo]. I feel the same way as the players. We need to figure out a way where we don’t give away an advantage just to start the tournament off.”
So MLS teams take CCL as seriously as they can, given the structure and circumstances. They adjust their preseason schedules and regimens and give everything they have on game day. But it’s a balancing act—there’s a long league season ahead—and there’s only so much they can do in such a compressed timeframe.
The Galaxy host Santos Laguna in the opening leg on Wednesday and plan to treat the March 1 decider in Torreón as a typical cross-country trip. LA will take a charter flight two nights before the game, train the following day in Mexico and then head home immediately afterward. The Galaxy played Tijuana and Armenian club FC Shirak in preseason friendlies, which added a bit of foreign flair to the build-up, but otherwise it’s been business as usual.
Seattle will welcome reigning CCL champion Club América on Tuesday night in the opener of their quarterfinal. Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey said there are two approaches to take: either stay and get comfortable like Montreal, or get in and get out quickly. Seattle will train in Los Angeles next Monday, arrive in Mexico the following day (March 1), play at the Azteca on March 2 and be on its way home the next morning.
If any of them advance, great. If they don’t, they’ll clean their wounds quickly and shift focus to the MLS season, which begins March 6. At this point, as MLS enters its 21st year, it’s still domestic performance that determines narrative and job security. Perhaps the CCL will take on greater relevance north of the border if MLS teams start winning it, but many throughout the league believe that won’t happen until the structure changes. One certainly could argue that putting more money toward player salaries and roster depth would help as well, but there's no question that the timing hurts.
“It remains a priority for us,” Garber said. “We think we have one hand tied behind our back almost at all times, which is frustrating … I think the powers that be should make decisions that are in the best interest of the quality of the competition that sponsors are paying for, broadcasters are paying for and ultimately, fans are paying for.”