Along with depth and roster size, MLS teams suffer against foreign teams because they can't afford to stockpile a deep enough forward corps. Goalscorers are the most prized commodity in soccer, and in terms of both salaries and length of contract guarantees, MLS teams struggle to accumulate enough talent.
Unless MLS changes its stance regarding contracts for its better domestic players, the league won't ascend to the next level whereby its best teams can consistently measure up against Mexican and South American opposition. The key is not just more money, but more commitment.
Nate Jaqua is by no means a great player, but the goals he scored last for Houston helped them win MLS Cup, and the dragged-out negotiations of a deal that would bring him back personify one of the league's most glaring shortcomings.
Traded by Los Angeles to Houston last season, he scored seven regular-season and playoff goals, then let his contract expire and left to play in Austria on a short-term deal that paid him slightly more than $100,000 for six months of work.
According to his agent, Patrick McCabe, if an MLS deal isn't done by the weekend Jaqua will fly to Europe, where McCabe says there are offers or interest from clubs in Austria, Germany, Norway and Sweden. Houston president Oliver Luck says talks have been held by which Jaqua would finish the season with the Dynamo and then perhaps be traded to expansion team Seattle. (Jaqua grew up in Portland and would like to play in the Northwest.)
McCabe insists the sticking point is not strictly salary, but the league's reluctance to guarantee contracts for more than one year, if that. "Guys can make more money in Europe, sure, but they can almost always get guaranteed contracts for two or three years, which is very hard to do in MLS for most players," says McCabe.
Houston does have Brian Ching, but its lack of a dependable second forward prompted Coach Dominic Kinnear to push midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, who had begun his MLS career as a forward in 2002 with San Jose, to the front line. It has one of the league's best defenses, and last year narrowly lost to Pachuca on penalty kicks in the SuperLiga semifinals after a 2-2 tie, but having lost both Jaqua and Joseph Ngwenya from that team, are shorthanded heading into what has become a prestigious and extremely competitive tournament in just its second year.
The Mexican teams are hamstrung somewhat by the timing of SuperLiga; the Mexican league doesn't start until next month and teams have been training for only a few weeks. But unlike their MLS counterparts, Mexican teams don't have to recharge following a long offseason. Most of their players have been off only about a month, and several have played for Mexico in its CONCACAF qualifiers as well as club friendlies in the past two weeks.
Chivas Guadalajara lost to New York, 1-0, and beat FC Dallas, 2-1, to prepare for SuperLiga. Santos Laguna blasted Real Salt Lake, 4-1, on Wednesday.
"Those who think SuperLiga are preseason are sorely mistaken," says Santos Laguna midfielder Fernando Arce, whose team qualified for SuperLiga by winning the Mexican League Clausura title last spring. "We have it in our heads to win every competition we participate in, especially if they are international.
"We didn't come to train, we came to win."
With goalscorers Luciano Emilio (D.C. United) and Ante Razov (Chivas USA) in good form, and New England getting goals from Adam Cristman, Steve Ralston, Kheli Dube and Kenny Mansally as Taylor Twellman completes his recovery from injury, those three teams might have an edge on Houston in very competitive group play.
FIELD OF EIGHT. In Group A Atlante and Chivas Guadalajara are matched with D.C. United and Houston. Defending SuperLiga champion Pachuca faces Santos Laguna, New England, and Chivas USA in Group B. After round-robin play this weekend and next, the top two teams advance to the semifinals July 29 and 30, and the semifinal winners advance to the Aug. 5 final.
D.C. United and Houston, along with Los Angeles and FC Dallas, competed in SuperLiga last year, and all but Dallas reached the semifinals. The Galaxy beat D.C. United, 2-0, before losing to Pachuca on penalties, 5-4, after a thrilling 1-1 tie in regulation and overtime at Home Depot Center.
"It's kind of a like a marketing thing, but at the same time we've complained in the past about not playing meaningful matches against quality international opponents," United goalkeeper Zach Wells said to the Associated Press, even though United has probably played more competitive international games than any other since the league began play in 1996. "And this is just another chance for us to do so."
The Revs have reached four MLS Cups and lost them all, and are currently atop the MLS overall standings with a 10-4-3 record. SuperLiga is a rare opportunity for the franchise to show its wares internationally after spending the 2008 preseason in Mexico, albeit in rather luxurious settings such as a resort in Cancun.
"I'm looking forward to having some home games at Gillette Stadium against some international competition as we don't get many changes to play internationally, especially at home," says goalkeeper Matt Reis, one of three Revs elected to the first XI for the All-Star Game to be played July 24 against English club West Ham United. "It seems we always have to travel to this kind of game so we are looking forward to having our own fans see us play quality opposition."
The Revs open their schedule Sunday against Santos Laguna and also play Pachuca at home Wednesday before traveling cross-country to face Chivas USA in Southern California at Cal State Fullerton's Titan Field.
Houston president Oliver Luck believes his team's success in the 2007 SuperLiga helped drive up Mexican-American attendances at games late in the regular season and in the playoffs.
"The switch, or tipping point, to use that popular phrase, came with SuperLiga last year," he says of a team that got off to a rocky start with the local Latino populace by adopting, then quickly dropping, Houston "1836" for a nickname in reference to border battles fought during the middle of the 19th century.
"We beat Club America and had a great, raucous crowd," Luck said. "There was a classic scene: the dad in the Club America jersey and his son in the Dynamo jersey. Thirty years of assimilation was evident right there. Our Latino supporters said, 'You know, this Dynamo team's not bad.'
"A lot of people began to take notice. Our two playoff games were probably 50-50 crowds, and the 50 percent of the crowd that was Latino were singing and chanting. There was a tremendous atmosphere. They bring that authenticity toward soccer. They support it like the Brits or the Germans or whatever."
Ching has a similar perspective, both for competitive and marketing purposes.
"I think if MLS wants to grow our teams have to start doing well in competitions like this against Mexican clubs," he says. "It's a small step right now but hopefully we can eventually play against other leagues and in other tournaments."
Getting more attackers like Jaqua to team up with goalscorers such as Ching can only aid the cause.
THIS WEEKEND'S SUPERLIGA GAMES
(All times Eastern)
SATURDAY, July 12
D.C. UNITED-GUADALAJARA (live), 8 pm.
HOUSTON-ATLANTE (live), 10 pm.
SUNDAY, July 13
NEW ENGLAND-SANTOS (live), 8 pm.
CHIVAS USA-PACHUCA (live), 10 pm.
Click HERE for complete schedule.