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MLS's Misguided Quest For Glory

MLS spends far too much time worrying about winning the flawed CONCACAF Champions League tournament and it makes the league look like an amateur act.
Photo by Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Bashing Major League Soccer has become something of an empty gesture. So many soccer snobs already do it that piling on amounts to white noise. Moreover, the bashing is often unfair because the league—still in its infancy and therefore an easy target—continues to grow at an impressive rate, far above most predictions.

That said: sometimes MLS just asks to be ridiculed.

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Case in point? The league's misguided pandering for recognition and respect by all but begging the Soccer Gods for a Montreal Impact win in the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL). MLS did not get its wish. Liga MX's Club America trounced Montreal 4-2 in the second leg of Wednesday's final and won by a 5-3 aggregate. America was clearly the better team, and that's hardly surprising: Liga MX teams have won every tournament under the current format, which was established in 2009.

During the buildup to both legs of the final, MLS focused its social media effort (#MLS4Montreal) on getting league fans to root for Montreal by suggesting that an Impact win would propel the league to international respect. Of course, the notion that a single victory in a single tournament could do wonders for MLS's reputation belies a vast inferiority complex; more pertinently, the idea that winning the absurdly constructed CONCACAF tournament—which matches club teams from the region in a UEFA Champions League-type competition that mirrors UEFA's competition in name only—is downright laughable.

Nevertheless, MLS became so focused on winning the tournament that its teams and the league agreed to restructure their season schedule to give Montreal the best possible chance to win. Montreal has not played a league match since April 11 and won't play another one until May 9. Meanwhile, America played a league match last weekend and will play again this weekend. Problem is, the rescheduling didn't help. Rather than put Montreal over the top, it made MLS appear petty and small-time, playing right into the hands of the league's perpetual critics.


Part of MLS's struggles in the tournament stem from a talent deficit, which reflects a difference in player salaries. Last year, the Daily Mail calculated that Liga MX had the 10th highest average salary in the world, almost $400,000 per player. On the other hand, MLS ranked 22nd in the world at about $210,000 per player.

And then there's the fact that MLS contorted itself to win a tournament that soccer fans know is insignificant. First, it's a logistical mess. While European teams qualify for the UEFA Champions League strictly through league standings—or by winning the UEFA Europa League—CONCACAF teams also can qualify by winning their nations' respective domestic cups. Sometimes, teams can even qualify on technicalities. For example, in order to accommodate the Canadian Championship being moved to a later date—which would conflict with CCL scheduling—the Vancouver Whitecaps were awarded next year's CCL spot by virtue of being the highest-placed Canadian team in last year's MLS standings.

Another problem is scheduling. While Liga MX teams—and other CONCACAF clubs—operate during the regular fall-through-spring season, MLS plays the majority of its games in the summer. This means that while Liga MX teams enter the CCL knockout stage near the tail end of their season—when team dynamics are better established, at least in theory—MLS teams are barely getting through thr first few games of their season, a time when teams often are establishing their identities and playing something less than their best soccer.


Canadian teams also have a distinct advantage over their American counterparts because of a qualification loophole. A Canadian team—like the Impact—can prioritize the Champions League over the MLS regular season and yet still qualify for next year's Champions League tournament by again winning the Canadian domestic cup. And that's exactly what the Impact did.

Sports Illustrated's Brian Straus wrote: "The Impact prioritized the tournament and considered international experience and seasoning when rebuilding its roster. The club spent money and time preparing for the knockout rounds with two extended trips to Mexico."

Realistically, each year the Canadian Cup is just a fight between the three MLS teams: Toronto FC, Vancouver, and the Impact. No other team has won the Canadian Cup since its inception in 2008. No other team has even reached the final. Trying to beat out two other teams instead of an entire league seems like a fairly realistic goal.

Montreal scored a meaningless late goal in Wednesday's CCL final. Photo by Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

If Montreal's run showed anything, it's that focusing on the Canadian Cup ahead of the MLS season makes sense, especially when reaching the finals earned the Impact so much acclaim, attention, and positive coverage, which may lead to an increase in ticket and merchandising sales. Also, the CCL winning team earns $1 million for reaching the FIFA Club World Cup, and an additional bonus should they advance further in that tournament. It even makes financial sense for a Canadian team to prioritize the CCL.

So in the end, MLS was pushing for a team that didn't even qualify for the tournament through league play. Which leads to the obvious question: How exactly is Montreal's performance then a measure of the league itself if the league didn't even get Montreal into the tournament, and to do so the Impact ignored league play?

In general, these types of tournaments are the worst measure of a league's strength anyway. Although only one English Premier League team has won—and a flukish winner at that—any of the past six Champions League titles, most pundits and statisticians usually agree that the EPL is still either the best or second-best top-to-bottom league in the world. Conversely, when Porto won the 2004 Champions League title, people around the world did not declare a new era for Portuguese soccer.

MLS's strength should be measured via its growing economic muscle: new stadiums, higher expansion fees, and increased television revenues. Each year, the league attracts better players. Attendance keeps rising. Worrying about how a handful of teams perform in a silly tournament should be beneath MLS. Only it isn't. And that's a problem. If you want to be taken seriously, don't make yourself a joke.