By Ridge Mahoney
To take a metaphor from another sport, MLS Commissioner Don Garber is trying to play both sides of the net when it comes to the Concacaf Champions League.
Though the CCL is not confined to teams from MLS and Liga MX, matches between the border rivals count the most in the American league’s quest for success, and both on the field and off, MLS teams have suffered by the comparison. In the first legs of the semifinals, Seattle takes on Santos Laguna tonight and the Galaxy hosts Monterrey tomorrow.
They represent a league that has an all-time mark of 17-38-13 in Concacaf games against Mexican clubs.
On the one hand, Garber has played down direct comparisons.
“It’s not fair to compare us to the Mexican League,” he once said. “They’ve been the only game in town for about 100 years.”
Garber is off by a few decades in his history -- the Mexican League began play in 1943 -- yet in terms of its prestige, history and resources, Liga MX is clearly the king of Concacaf.
The gap is narrowing, though. The slow, steady growth of MLS has enabled teams to attract more of the Central and South American players also coveted by Mexican clubs, many of which can spend three or four times the MLS salary cap ($2.95 million in 2013).
The Designated Player option allows teams to exceed the salary cap by a considerable amount, but the best showing by an MLS team in the CCL -- RSL’s appearance in the 2011 final against Monterrey -- did not correlate to big spending. RSL did not have a DP on its roster at that time. To date, the Fire, Red Bulls, Sounders and Galaxy have spent the most on DPs, and none has reached the finals.
A year and a half ago, Seattle atoned for a miserable CCL showing by advancing out of group play during which it won in Monterrey.
“When we beat Monterrey down there, it was a big deal,” says technical director Chris Henderson. “The TV commentators were talking about how Mexican teams have to take the MLS teams seriously. They realize the gap is not so big anymore and need to field the first team.”
Santos Laguna took note. It crushed Seattle, 6-1, in its CCL quarterfinal home leg a year ago, and once the rematch in this year’s semis was set, forward Herculez Gomez couldn’t resist sending out a taunting tweet.
MLS teams receive a modest stipend in allocation money -- $100,000 -- by qualifying for the CCL and an additional two roster slots. The money is ridiculed as woefully insignificant, yet the league is bound by its own financial parameters. A big chunk of allocation money -- say $500,000 -- would allow a team to upgrade its roster significantly, which could improve its CCL performance but would also affect the league’s competitive balance, since the player(s) acquired couldn’t be restricted solely to CCL appearances.
Teams get a lot more money from the league for stinking it up -- teams that miss the playoffs receive $275,000 in allocation money -- than they do for reaching the CCL. Yet that also makes sense from the league’s perspective on parity; it provides resources for the poorer teams to improve. And the better teams can, and do, trade for allocation money as well as scour the market for DPs.
In comments to the media last month before the season opener at CenturyLink Field, Garber addressed an issue with many subtexts and very few ready-made solutions.
“We have to do better in the Champions League,” Garber said. “I think the opportunity for an MLS team to win the Champions league in this region and go to a World Club Championship and compete against some of the best clubs in the world is an important goal.
“It’s something that we are pushing our clubs to be mindful of and hope that they would take that tournament -- which I think is much better managed with the new leadership at CONCACAF -- far more seriously than some clubs have taken it in the past.”
Not all Mexican clubs take the competition seriously. League leader UANL Tigres, leading 1-0 after the first leg, sent a backup squad to Seattle last month for the return match. The Sounders inflicted a 3-1 defeat and captured the series, 3-2, on aggregate. The stunning success of Apertura champion Club Tijuana in the Copa Libertadores -- it won its first three group matches and leads Group 5 with two games to play -- has overshadowed the CCL in the Mexican press even though its clubs dominate Concacaf play. For much of Mexico, the Champions League in April means Barcelona and Real Madrid and Paris St. Germain.
To give MLS teams a better chance of success, MLS didn’t schedule league matches for the three CCL quarterfinalists (including Houston) last month on the weekend between the two legs, and has switched games this coming weekend for Seattle and the Galaxy. This should help, yet the Mexican teams are allowed to spread their salary money throughout their rosters instead of concentrating resources on a few players, and his gap in overall quality is a tall obstacle to hurdle. It’s also a factor MLS is nearly powerless to address.
If Seattle and the Galaxy falter, Monterrey and Santos Laguna will repeat as CCL finalists: Monterrey won last year, 3-2, on aggregate, and is going for a three-peat.
Since the current format was adopted in 2008, RSL is the only non-Mexican team to reach the finals, and it will take a monumental effort for a breakthrough in this year’s edition.