It’s really not all that difficult to envision a scenario by which Concacaf could level the playing field a bit for its Champions League knockout phase.
But it’s up to MLS and U.S. Soccer to work within the confederation to implement such changes, rather than whine about the schedule.
If Concacaf pushed the quarterfinals back two weeks and MLS started a week earlier, MLS teams could play two league matches prior to the resumption of Concacaf play. It is unlikely that Concacaf flips the schedule and plays the group phase early in the year and knockout rounds in late summer.
Each year, Concacaf has to work around FIFA international dates in March and June and the end of the spring seasons in Mexico and Central American countries that involve playoffs and midweek games in May. An altered schedule would extend the CCL season one week, cut out one of the two weeks between the semifinals and finals but also eliminate the three-week gap between the two legs of the semifinals.MLS teams, which don’t start their league matches until early March, usually struggle in the knockout rounds. Since adoption of the current format, in which teams advance from group play in late summer and fall to quarterfinals in late winter, only Real Salt Lake (in 2011) and Montreal (in 2015) have reached the finals. Mexican teams have won all seven regional titles.
In the 2011 finals, RSL lost on aggregate to Monterrey, 3-2, after tying the first leg in Mexico, 2-2. Last spring Club America ended Montreal’s dream run, 5-3, on aggregate.
None of the four MLS quarterfinalists -- D.C. United, Real Salt Lake, Seattle and the LA Galaxy -- chose to emulate a 17-day preseason trip to Mexico that launched the Impact into its flight to the final, despite the other members of the final eight all being from Liga MX.
Last year, MLS helped out by rescheduling a few of Montreal’s league games, which in one case allowed Montreal to train for an additional week in Mexico to prepare for the finals. Montreal spent a lot of money -- more than $2 million by some accounts -- to twice travel to Mexico and train and play. Montreal only scraped through by the away-goals rule in both rounds leading up to the finals; it finished level with Pachuca, 3-3, in the quarterfinals and edged out Costa Rican club Alajuelense after a 4-4 deadlock. Without those trips to Mexico, it's doubtful Montreal would have advanced as far as it did.
Some fans and observers believe each MLS representative should take on that commitment and expense to improve the league’s performances in CCL, and that MLS should do more to help its teams. The league provides some additional allocation money -- $200,000 a team, per the new CBA -- and will reschedule games, but it can’t force teams to radically alter its preseason plans. The preseason is, first and foremost, preparation for the league campaign, and for teams that will always be the primary objective.
Moving back the CCL quarterfinals into the early weeks of the MLS season would give players at least a few games to get ready and alleviate the huge disadvantages they encounter. MLS commissioner Don Garber has emphasized the importance of CCL performances in the league’s growth and U.S. Soccer has a vested interest in the regional tournament as well. As MLS teams lure better and better players and its stature around the world increases, its relevance in the regional club competition needs to keep pace.
So it’s incumbent upon Garber and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati to evoke scheduling change within Concacaf as part of a general overhaul of the CCL. There are too many on-field melees, refereeing aberrations, crowd-control problems, etc., that need to be addressed. A scheduling change would improve the caliber of play by the MLS teams and thus the competition’s overall appeal. The Mexican teams might still prove to be superior and that is a possibility the league would have to deal with. But the current dynamics just aren't working.
In the six quarterfinals played through Tuesday, I’ve seen dozens of mistakes and squandered opportunities directly attributable to sharpness and fitness and miscommunication, rather than quality of player or deficiency of tactics. I believe that no longer are all MLS teams clearly inferior to the elite teams of Concacaf, but rather that the burden of playing tough games in late February is too severe a disadvantage. MLS teams regularly advance from group play contested during the second half of the MLS season so they are certainly capable of competing on a level field. I have no doubt the Galaxy would have performed better if it had played Santos Laguna in late March with no ill effect on the Mexican team.
A few league matches wouldn’t be enough to balance out the conditioning and game-readiness of MLS teams against foes from Liga MX or elsewhere in Concacaf, but it would give those representatives a reasonable chance to perform at a good level, and significantly enhance the competition as well.