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MLS's dismal Champions League display proves there's still work ahead

3/21/2014

Look around MLS, and it’s easy to see signs of progress. The league’s profile and level of play continues to rise, due in no small part to the return stateside of U.S. internationals like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley. The revenues from its soon-to-be-announced television contract are poised to at least double.

But when it comes to competing in the CONCACAF Champions League, the inescapable fact is that MLS clubs remain a distant second to their Liga MX rivals.

Three MLS teams -- the San Jose Earthquakes, L.A. Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City -- attempted to get past Mexican opposition this week in the quarterfinals of the CCL, and all three failed to progress. Each result was disappointing, albeit for widely different reasons.

Surprisingly, it was San Jose that made the best go of it, taking powerhouse Toluca to penalties despite missing six defenders due to injury or suspension. Had an apparent extra-time goal by Alan Gordon not been wrongly disallowed for offside, the Quakes might very well have prevailed. Instead it was Toluca that could count itself lucky, no matter how much manager Jose Cardozo disparaged San Jose’s direct style.

The Galaxy’s performance ranks as the most mystifying, if only because some of the usual advantages that Mexican clubs have enjoyed weren’t present in opponents Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles. There was no altitude factor and minimal travel, yet the Galaxy delivered a cryogenic performance in the opening half of Tuesday’s second leg. L.A. saw its one-goal lead from the first leg obliterated to the tune of three Xolos goals, and couldn’t recover, despite two second-half tallies from Robbie Keane. Why the Galaxy insisted on playing a high defensive line remains a mystery.

As for SKC, the absence of outside backs Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic meant it simply had no answer for the devastating flank play of Marco Fabian and the rest of his Cruz Azul teammates. The 5-1 result from the second leg was an accurate reflection of the teams’ respective performances, and was plenty to overturn Kansas City’s one-goal advantage from the first leg.

The week’s results were nothing new of course. There have been heartbreaking defeats before in the CCL and its forerunner, the CONCACAF Champions Cup. The Houston Dynamo lost an epic semifinal to Pachuca in extra time back in 2007. Real Salt Lake’s loss to Monterrey in the 2011 final cut deep as well. There have also been plenty of blowouts over the years. All told, only twice has an MLS club prevailed over two legs against Mexican opposition.

“We all desperately want that global respect, but the only way that’s going to happen is if we win this competition, and not just once, but consistently,” said former U.S. international Jimmy Conrad. “Frankly, I’m happy that we got our asses handed to us because it will force us to address these issues sooner rather than later. Liga MX has the lead on us, they’re doing something better than we are.”

The obstacles to success for MLS clubs in the CCL are obvious and well-documented, and go beyond the skill and talent present on Mexican clubs. The calendar, which sees the knockout stages begin right as the MLS regular season starts, does the league’s teams no favors given the lower levels of fitness at this time of year.

An even bigger factor is the disparity in payrolls between MLS and Mexican clubs. Back in 2012, Seattle Sounders manager Sigi Schmid estimated that his club’s payroll was about 30 percent of that of opponents Monterrey. For a team like San Jose the difference is greater. For Seattle and a club like L.A., that gap has probably narrowed, and reports indicated that Tijuana was actually at a disadvantage against the Galaxy. In most cases, however, the disparity exists, and represents a significant disadvantage for MLS clubs.

“I’m shaking my head today because MLS is telling everyone that CONCACAF Champions League is important,” said former U.S. international and current ESPN television analyst Taylor Twellman. “If it is, you can’t send these teams into that competition with that salary cap [hurdle]. How important is it to the owners? How important is it to MLS? If the CCL is important, then things have to change.”

All of this points to the long-standing conundrum of what comes first for MLS, more spending on salaries or an increase in revenues. Granted, some teams like L.A., Seattle and Toronto aren’t waiting and have spent considerable money on Designated Players. But even that approach is limited in a salary cap world, and at some point, MLS and its owners must decide to spend, and not simply on the DPs that make up the high end of the roster. It’s about adding more quality so there is the depth to compete when suspensions and injury strike.

For current Xolos forward and U.S. international Herculez Gomez, a player who spent considerable time in MLS with L.A. and Kansas City, it’s also about furthering the ambition of domestic players.

“I don’t know how much more teams have to spend, but I do think it has to be more in order for players to take themselves seriously,” he said via telephone. “My personal opinion, it’s very difficult to demand the same out of a player who’s making $40,000 a year as one who is making $1.5 million on the same roster, the same age, same background. It’s very difficult. I’ve been on that end. It’s not a good feeling if you’re putting all of yourself into it and don’t see the payoff.”

The new collective bargaining agreement set to be negotiated over the next year with the MLS Players Union will no doubt reveal the league’s intentions. But it’s clear that the incremental increases seen in recent years aren’t sufficient.

The salary and scheduling issues are by no means the only layers to the problem of CCL performance, however. There are player and coaching development concerns to be considered. Certainly the advent of reserve teams in USL PRO -- the third tier of the U.S. soccer pyramid -- will help fill part of the player development gap that takes place between ages 18 and 21. The funding of academies and signing of homegrown players are important steps, but also ones in their infancy. Yet Gomez added that there are some cultural differences that just can’t be completely replicated.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of playing these kind of games week in, week out,” he said. “With all due respect, Seattle and Portland, those are amazing atmospheres, but they’re not hostile atmospheres. Seattle has an amazing fan base, it’s a top club, respectful, everything you want to be if you’re a player. But if you’re an opposing player, you don’t feel threatened.

“If you come down to Mexico City, you have to think about the altitude, the fans, the little CONCACAF tricks [the club] plays, crowds throwing things at you, obscenities, threats on social media. My life was threatened on social media once because I missed a penalty when I first got to Santos Laguna against Chivas. Things like that don’t happen every day in MLS.”

This is not to say that Gomez wants MLS crowds to venture towards the dark side, but he does feel MLS could do more to help accelerate development from where it is now.

“U.S. players don’t have to go abroad, but you have to start getting those professional games at an earlier age,” he added.

There comes a point however when all of these explanations, valid as they might be, begin to ring a bit hollow. The elimination of MLS sides this week was as much about failing to take chances at home as it was conceding on the road. San Jose and L.A. were especially wasteful, with DPs Keane and Chris Wondolowski among the guilty parties.

“A part of me agrees with Landon Donovan when he says L.A. only has eight players that know how to win these games while Tijuana has 20,” said Twellman. “But then I think L.A. had enough chances to win the first game 2-0 or 3-0.”

Then there is the mental aspect of playing against Mexican clubs. Certainly there was something not right about how both L.A. and Kansas City started their respective matches. The same was true with regard to the response after the first goal was conceded. Both teams looked shell-shocked and the second goal was conceded shortly thereafter. The mentality, traditionally a U.S. strength, needed to be better in those moments.

“History plays a part, whether you’d like to believe it or not,” said Gomez. “It’s like when the U.S. plays Ghana. ‘Oh, it’s Ghana again.’ Then in the CCL it’s, ‘Oh it’s a Mexican team again.’ You’ve got to move beyond that. It’s just 11 versus 11.”

MLS has long said its aim is to be one of the best leagues in the world. But to get that point it has to be the best in its own region first, and there are plenty of steps to be taken until that modest goal is reached.