CONCACAF Champions League begins tonight. I wrote way more about it than may be justified.
MLS has never performed well in the CONCACAF Champions League on a consistent basis. In the 52 editions of the tournament (20 since the founding of Major League Soccer), American teams have won twice: DC United in 1998 and LA Galaxy in 2000. In those 20 years, there have been three runner-up finishes, from the LA Galaxy in 1997, Real Salt Lake in 2011, and Montreal Impact – a Canadian club, but one playing in MLS – in 2015.
In that timeframe, Mexico has seen the champion 16 times (Costa Rica’s Alajuelense and Saprissa won in 2004 and 2005, respectively), and 13 runners-up (Saprissa has finished in second place twice, Alajuelense once, and Honduras’s Olimpia once).
Here’s this year’s opening round (first leg home teams listed first). Will we see Major League Soccer teams not only perform well in this round, but take down the Mexican and Central American clubs going forward?
- Herediano (Costa Rica) v. Tigres (Mexico) Feb. 20/27
- Colorado Rapids (USA/MLS) v. Toronto FC (Canada/MLS) Feb. 20/27
- Motagua (Honduras) v. Tijuana (Mexico) Feb. 21/27
- Tauro (Panama) v. FC Dallas (USA/MLS) Feb. 21/28
- Saprissa (Costa Rica) v. Club América (Mexico) Feb. 21/28
- Cibao (Dominican Republic) v. Chivas de Guadalajara (Mexico) Feb. 22/28
- Santa Tecia (El Salvador) v. Seattle Sounders (USA/MLS) Feb. 22/March 1
- Olimpia (Honduras) v. New York Red Bulls (USA/MLS) Feb. 22/March 1
Surely, it’s not a mystery that soccer is a bigger part of the sporting culture in Mexico than it is in the United States – nor that Mexican-Americans are often just as likely to support a club in their ancestral country as one in MLS – but why is it that the gap between clubs seems to be so large in their head-to-head competitions? At the very least, there must be some lessons to learn from our neighbors to the South about how we can improve the domestic product – and down the line, the performance of the national team (I’m not a “strong MLS means strong USMNT” guy by any stretch, but certainly the better the domestic league the more opportunity of a larger player pool, etc. A post for another day).
First and foremost, Mexican clubs have more valuable players, and often in soccer, it can be that simple. Transfermarkt isn’t exactly gospel, but it’s a good estimation of player value, at the very least. The average Liga MX club has $41.93 million worth in player value. MLS? $23.01 million. The value of players on a roster isn’t the be-all, end-all (and again, Transfermarkt must be taken with a grain of salt), but certainly a league that has on average nearly twice as much talent – as measured monetarily – should be winning most of these things.
Let’s drill it down and look more closely at the best teams – and specifically at those that have made it into the 2018 edition of the CONCACAF Champions League. We’ll start with an obvious problem here: the parity of MLS means that you have the back-to-back championship game participants (Sounders and Toronto FC), but also teams that finished sixth in the East (Red Bulls), and seventh and tenth, respectively, in the West (FC Dallas and Rapids). The three, uh, iffy teams qualified as a result of their 2016 results, but they all fell off a cliff in 2017. Meanwhile all but one Mexican team (2016 Apertura runners-up America) finished in the top three in one of the 2017 seasons. Already, MLS isn’t necessarily sending its best and brightest.
Tigres has a market value of $86.1 million. Club Tijuana, $47.8 million. América, $48.67 million. Chivas, $49.81 million. The American clubs range from $34.04 million (for the team that is contending for the title of best MLS side ever) at Toronto down to $25.32 million (Sounders), $23.69 million (Red Bulls), $20.35 million (FC Dallas), all the way to $19.91 million (Rapids). That is to say, the best-compensated MLS team in this competition could add Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin (that is to say, two starters in Europe, including one of the Bundesliga’s hottest players), and still be a million short of the cheapest Mexican team of the bunch – and that’s just if we’re limiting ourselves to Americans.
Aside from the problems in inter-federation competition that naturally arise from a salary cap that doesn’t apply to teams outside of USSF/MLS jurisdiction, domestic teams also aren’t in mid-season form.
That’s a matter of the United States and the Canadian MLS clubs playing a Summer schedule rather than Fall-to-Winter (and I’m not advocating for a change – anybody who has, like, been to our country knows that Summer is the time to play soccer). That season also means that MLS teams’ first action since early December – or early November for the Red Bulls, October 22 for FC Dallas and the Rapids – will be in this competition. Yes, Colorado will almost certainly get pasted by Toronto before facing Central American (or Caribbean) competition, but either way, these teams aren’t in mid-season form. Mexico, on the other hand, finished the Apertura regular season in late November, and has eight regular-season Clausura games under its belt in January and February. The Liga MX teams are in mid-season form.
That’s not to say the United States should change its playing season (again, it shouldn’t), especially not just to compete better in the CONCACAF Champions League (even if there were compelling reasons to move the season, that would be extremely low on the list). However, it does result in a competitive disadvantage for MLS sides in this particular event.
So, will we see an MLS team finally break through? If you’re USA-or-bust, the bad news for you is that Toronto FC is probably the league’s best chance. Should the Reds take care of business against Colorado, though, they have the toughest test possible in Tigres. The Sounders have Chivas, the second-most expensive Mexican side (though it’s fair to note they were bad in the Apertura and are at this early stage in the Clausura – who knows if they’ll get through Cibao). Neither is going to have an easy go of it, but these are two star-studded sides by MLS standards, and they should have the opportunity to build toward the opponents in the second round.
Of course, if you live in the United States, you’d better make sure Univision is in your cable package: at least for the first round, there’s no English-language broadcast. I guess we’ll have to wait to find out whether the teams we ostensibly want to follow make it to the next round (the absolutely terrible television deals by MLS and MLS teams – though improving with the ESPN Plus move! – are another story for another day). We’ll certainly hope they make it through.
Not going to say it often, but… Go MLS.