MLS teams still unable to solve CONCACAF Champions League

The LA Galaxy could do little more than shrug after becoming the latest MLS team to falter at the CONCACAF Champions League.
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Moments after Santos Laguna’s Martín Bravo scored his team’s fourth goal late Tuesday night in Torreón, the LA Galaxy’s Twitter feed responded with just about the only thing MLS clubs can offer at this stage of the CONCACAF Champions League:

A shrug. 

LA was one of four MLS teams to face Mexican opposition in this season’s CCL quarterfinals. Although the home-and-home series started only a month into the MLS preseason, there was some hope north of the border that a reversal in international fortunes was nigh. The Montreal Impact advanced to the 2014-15 finals and had a lead at home entering the second half of the second leg. Then LA, D.C. United, the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake all won their groups last fall. It appeared that after so many years of futility, MLS was just a step away.

Quality, depth of MLS teams still far behind competition in CCL

It turns out that progress was part illusion and part cost prohibitive. Montreal spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and some three weeks training in Mexico to prepare for its series against Pachuca and Club América. It took a toll, and none of this year’s entrants opted to follow suit. Whether it was an issue of expense, comfort or routine—or simply a realistic assessment of the odds and potential benefits—LA, DC, RSL and Seattle chose not to go all in on the CCL. And now, they’re all out.

LA and D.C. were eliminated Tuesday after they scored a combined one goal in their four quarterfinal games. On Wednesday night, Seattle was beaten by América, 3-1, in Mexico City. That gave last season’s CCL winner the series 5-3 on aggregate. RSL then put up the best fight of the round and tied Liga MX champion Tigres UANL, 1-1, at boisterous Rio Tinto Stadium. But that wasn’t enough to overturn a 2-0 loss last week outside Monterrey. Adding to the agony, Javier Morales missed a second-half penalty kick that would have lifted RSL to a two-goal lead. Tigres then scored in stoppage time to ensure MLS failed to win any of the eight quarterfinal games.

The MLS regular season kicks off on Sunday and already, the league’s interest in the 2015-16 CCL and its hopes for a spot in the Club World Cup have been dashed. Montreal’s run was an outlier—a bright spot during a dismal 15-year stretch of failure. Since CONCACAF began sending MLS teams on the road in 2002 just two, the Impact and RSL (in 2011), have played for the trophy. MLS clubs are 25-42 in two-game series and have won only three times in 28 showdowns with Mexican teams. Over the past three years, Montreal is the only MLS outfit to win a knockout-round series.

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Now there will be frustration and criticism. People will question MLS’s structure, schedule, commitment and quality. But that will fade as the regular season gets into gear. No MLS coach or GM has ever been fired because he couldn’t solve the CCL. No player has been cut and fans forgive. There’s almost no pressure to win this competition. It’s a bonus, not a necessity. That’s partly CONCACAF’s fault. It didn’t get its act together and organize a full champions league tournament until 2008, and many domestic circuits around the region are so underfunded that few clubs outside Mexico possess any cache. History and meaning are lacking, and the schedule does MLS no favors.

Of course, it’s also partly Major League Soccer’s fault. Its owners simply don’t spend the money required to field teams with the quality and depth necessary to challenge their Mexican counterparts. Over and over, we watch Liga MX teams finish their chances while MLS clubs send theirs astray. Over and over, we see MLS teams fold late in matches.

While the league does help CCL entrants with scheduling, charter flights and a boost in allocation funds, the collective bargaining agreement doesn’t permit them to start preseason earlier. Meanwhile, MLS continues to adhere to its slow-growth mantra while failing to convince CONCACAF to switch the CCL schedule to conform to the calendar year. A shift would help MLS teams in the knockout rounds while ensuring stronger participants (this year’s quarterfinalists qualified in 2014). And it would aid the eventual winners, still likely Mexican, in December’s Club World Cup. But progress has been imperceptible.

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So Mexican clubs always win, fans get bored and MLS executives start to think their money and time would be better spent. Coaches send their best players out on the day—“I didn’t tell them to tank the tournament. We went after it,” D.C.’s Ben Olsen said Tuesday—but spending like Montreal or Mexico just doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

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“I think that if the tournament were structured in a way where all the teams involved in it were at the same point in their preparation and performance, I think it would be much easier to have those conversations with ownership,” RSL GM Craig Waibel told last week. “But as we sit right now, the way the competition is structured, it’s very, very difficult in terms of preparation when we haven’t had the proper amount of time … On an annual basis, we need to give ourselves a better chance to win this competition.”

MLS commissioner Don Garber, speaking on the Planet Fútbol podcast, called it a “horrible situation” and implored “the powers that be [to] make decisions that are in the best interest for the equality of the competition that sponsors are paying for, broadcasters are paying for and ultimately fans are paying for.”

But scheduling is only half the battle, or less. Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson, whose team will enter the 2016-17 CCL, said Thursday on Twitter:

Raising the salary budget and demonstrating a willingness to spend more on rosters below the Designated Player level requires the will of the MLS board. Until they make that commitment, and until the schedule is at least a little bit more equitable (why not start the quarterfinals in late March?), events like this week's will continue to be the norm. MLS will not get different results by trying the same thing over and over. 

Which leaves the rest of us with nothing to do but shrug.