By Ridge Mahoney
So let me get this straight: there are people in favor of MLS teams competing in the South American club championship, the Copa Libertadores?
I can only assume they are wallowing in the theoretical, the fantasy realm of soccer, for at this stage of its development there’s little to be gained by sending middle-tier MLS teams into an arduous, difficult tournament. The timing, the travel, and the talent gap all work against MLS.
The Libertadores kicks off in late January, when Mexican teams are a few games into the Clausura season, and their MLS counterparts are shaking off midwinter rust. Yes, a trip to Rio Tinto Stadium or Red Bull Arena would be extremely difficult for a Bolivian or Ecuadoran team, as well as just about everybody else.
As clearly the top team in MLS, the Galaxy couldn’t get past Mexican opposition in the Concacaf Champions League semifinals played last month, and neither could another MLS team with the maximum of three Designated Players, Seattle. MLS teams regularly fail head-to-head against Liga MX squads, which in the past decade have attained some success in the Libertadores for the same reasons they usually beat MLS opposition: bigger player payrolls and deeper rosters.
The best MLS teams already play international club soccer, the Concacaf Champions League, and let’s just say the record isn’t stellar. Depending on how the playoffs shake out, MLS sends its MLS Cup champion, the Supporters Shield winner, the U.S. Open Cup champion, and one other team to the CCL. If the same team wins both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup, as the Galaxy did in 2011, the formula is altered.
Designated Players do not guarantee success -- see Red Bull New York -- and supporters of greater MLS participation in club competitions would cite Real Salt Lake 2011 as a prime example of a team performing well despite a lack of DPs. Fair point. Yet RSL also failed, losing the second leg to Monterrey at home, 1-0, after gaining a 2-2 tie in Mexico, and since that stumble two years ago has cleared out several stars in an attempt to rebuild.
I don’t think the current RSL team would stand up well in the Libertadores, nor would New York, for reasons of timing as well as talent. If the tournament kicked off in late April, it might make more sense. But it doesn’t.
One can make the case that MLS need only be competitive to make participation in the Libertadores worthwhile, but this smells to me more like the South American confederation, Conmebol, trying to cash in on a team like the Red Bulls. The presence of a Thierry Henry would add a bit of luster to the Libertadores, and news that a true New York team may be announced within a month certainly broadens the appeal of MLS participation from the South American perspective.
MLS would have to determine a procedure by which its Libertadores representatives are selected and taking an example from Mexico, that won’t be an easy process.
Mexico is bound by the same protocol as MLS in that it is obligated to send its domestic champion and top finishers into the CCL, but its split seasons (Apertura and Clausura) alter the formula. Thus, the defending league champion, Club Tijuana, is currently competing in the Libertadores and has reached the first knockout stage. It will play in the 2013-14 CCL as well.
The three 2013 Libertadores slots for Mexican teams were allotted to Toluca, Club Tijuana and Leon. They were determined to be the “best eligible” candidates, for their high placing in the Apertura season but also their exclusion from the 2012-13 CCL for which Mexico is represented thusly: 2012 Clausura champion Santos Laguna and runner-up Monterrey, as well as UANL and Guadalajara based on their performances in the 2011 Apertura season. (Yes, it gets confusing.)
As the 2012 Apertura champion crowned last December, Club Tijuana will play the 2013-14 edition of the CCL that kicks off in summer. It will be joined by the 2012 Apertura losing finalist, Toluca, as well as the champion and runner-up of the current 2013 Clausura campaign.
Teams cannot play concurrently in the CCL and Libertadores because the CCL knockout rounds are played at the same time -- February and March -- as the South American competition’s group phase.
The U.S. representatives for the next CCL edition will be MLS Cup titlist Los Angeles, Supporters’ Shield winner San Jose, MLS Cup runner-up Houston, and Open Cup winner Sporting Kansas City. Another MLS team will be added if Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver wins the Canadian qualifying competition.
Given a choice, Mexican teams would prefer the far more glamorous Libertadores, except that the CCL winner books a ticket to the World Club Cup. The Libertadores winner also receives a slot, and if a Mexican team won the South American club competition, the losing finalist -- assuming it wasn’t a Mexican team as well -- would represent the region in the World Club Cup. So theoretically, a Mexican team could win the Libertadores yet not go to the World Club Cup, since the Concacaf slot would be filled by the CCL champion.
If a formal invitation came from Conmebol to participate in the Libertadores Cup, MLS might well accept despite the fact a team would probably be required to play a home-and-away series in late January just to get into the group phase, which this year featured three games in February and two more in March.
But MLS would be better served by finding ways and means to win the CCL, and by so doing ramp up its chances in the Libertadores down the road.