Much like the leaves that molt on the Texas Live Oaks this time of year, out come same the articles dissecting the latest MLS failures in the CONCACAF champions League. Most of them offer the same laundry list of excuses year-to-year. The calendar doesn’t favor MLS teams, most of the teams are in Pre-season, the salary cap prevents teams from filling out their roster with quality players from top to bottom, they are not going to go all out and risk injury with a whole season to play…. The excuses are understandable. But it does not explain their performances.
I get it. It is not the best time of year for MLS sides to play a highly competitive match against a quality opponent. It is a problem. Moreso because the hurdles that MLS has to clear in order for them to achieve success have been placed by MLS themselves. The league starts in the Spring so as not to compete with a crowded sports calendar and avoid playing in the harsh winters of the northern franchises. The collective bargaining agreement with the players union sets the terms for pre-season training. None of the the teams that are still in the CCL get a pass to start earlier, so there they are floundering away, if they manage to get that far in the first place.
Since CONCACAF expanded the pool of teams to create the CCL in 2008-9, MLS sides have been afforded the luxury of having 4 sides qualify for the tournament. This was the first time in 7 years that all four sides escaped the preliminary stages alive.
From 2008 to 2011-12, Despite having their 4 allotted slotted slots (and 1 Canadian side), only 6 teams were able to qualify past the group stage; a 40% success rate. Remember, these games are played in the late-summer – fall, when MLS sides have had most of their season to gel while their group mates were just getting going. Only 1 team, Real Salt Lake, made it past the semi finals.
Liga MX did MLS a solid by asking CONCACAF to number of group teams from 4 to 3, which meant that MLS sides and Liga MX sides would not compete against each other in the group stage. MLS has fared better in the group stage. Where 3,3,2 (1 Canadian), and 4 teams have made it to the quarter finals. Out of those 12 sides, only 3 have made it past the quarters finals. a 25% success rate. Just this past week, all 4 MLS sides meekly exitied the tournament, with only Real Salt Lake putting up much of a fight against the 4 Liga MX Opponents.
How much of that can we really blame on the reasons we stated above? How much of it can we attribute to the fact that the teams the MLS sides faced are just better? Less of the former and more of the latter.
MLS is in a tough spot. While the league has done a terrific job of creating a spectacular game day atmosphere at most of their home stadiums, the TV ratings have not reflected the same enthusiasm. MLS not only has to compete with the other pro leagues in the US, but Liga MX, the EPL and the Champions League as well. They are fighting a war on two fronts. What other American league has that kind of competition? And when they finally get ready to crown a champion, they do so right in the thick of the American television’s most watched sports – NFL and NCAA football seasons. When their ratings should be peaking, they barely register a blip.
So how can MLS be more competitive in the second stage of the CCL
Before offering suggestions, we understand that nothing can be done with the schedule. The league is not going to move from their Spring start. It is a non-starter. Period. We get it.
#1 A Pre-season Tournament. a Made for TV spectacle somewhere warm. Give the teams that have qualified for the CCL knockouts a slot and fill it out with based on the previous year’s standings. Make the tournament $omething worth playing for. Help the CCL teams find their early form.
#2 Reduce the number of teams that qualify for the CCL. Frankly, MLS has shown over the history of the tournament that 4 teams (5 with the Canadian entrant) have been nothing if not undeserving. 3 teams plus the Canadian side makes 4. If playing the CCL is too much of a burden for MLS sides to crowd their pre-season with a trip down south, then limit the exposure.
#3 Pressure CONCACAF to change the tournament schedule. This one is certainly the most popular among MLS fans. Doesn’t mean it is gonna happen, and here is one theory why. It is the Mexico market, and the Mexico market in the US that are CONCACAF’S two most important markets. Pushing the tournament quarters a month down the road will interfere with Mexico’s Liguilla, which is a huge money maker for their broadcast partners. Liga MX already has to deal with the dilemma of having to juggle Libertadores ties with Liguilla ones. Adding CCL to the mix would not work. The ratings tell us that MLS is the 4th most popular soccer league in the US. Liga MX is the 4th most popular league in the US.
#4 Get better. We all keep hearing that #thegapisclosing. And it is. Mexican sides ceratinly noticed and have stepped up their game. That reason, above all the others we have discussed here today, is the main reason why Mexico has 4 sides in the CCL semis, and why the final will be an all Mexican affair for the 6th team since the format change 8 years ago. Right now, the Mexican teams are better. Whether they play in February, April or September, that is not going to change.
MLS will eventually ween itself off the players looking to make that lifestyle leap. They can probably start sooner than most think Develop their own players from their academies and not the draft. Add a designated player that can help a team win games, not just sell tickets. There will be a day when their best players’ best days are ahead of them, not behind them.