MLS prepares for another shot at elusive CONCACAF Champions League title

Monterrey maintained Mexico's dominance in the CONCACAF Champions League by winning its third consecutive title in the 2012-13 edition of the tournament.

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Sporting Kansas City captain Matt Besler pondered the question of priorities carefully as he weighed a question about the upcoming season. Another title is a prerequisite, he quickly noted. Trophies are the lifeblood of his club, the only way a year can fall into the category of success.

Yet the preferred triumph itself – MLS Cup, Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League – took a bit more time to emerge. His eventual verdict reflected an emerging consensus among his colleagues, particularly those players with fixtures against prominent Mexican clubs already in their minds.

“I know the biggest one would probably be the Champions League,” Besler said during the MLS media and marketing tour last month. “We’re close. We’re in the quarterfinals. We’re right there. No MLS team has done it. That’s going to be the first one we’re focused on.”

Besler and Sporting Kansas City aren’t alone in their quest. LA Galaxy and San Jose join them in the CCL quarterfinals this week. All three teams possess the opportunity to claim their own slice of history and reinforce the league’s growth with a tangible end product.

It will take some doing, though: MLS clubs possess a poor record at this stage of the competition. As Besler noted, no American or Canadian team has lifted the trophy during the Champions League era (2008-09 to present). Real Salt Lake lost to Monterrey in the final in 2011. LA Galaxy (2012-13), Seattle (2012-13) and Toronto FC (2011-12) reached the semifinals a year ago. And those are the only achievements worth noting.

Seattle joined LA Galaxy in the semifinals of last year’s tournament, but Santos Laguna eventually dispatched the Sounders to advance to the final.

MLS craves more success in this competition. The league allocated more money to its participating clubs to bolster their salary budgets (reportedly in the region of $250,000) a couple of years ago and removed a few, if not all, of the scheduling hurdles to make it easier for them to prepare for the tasks ahead.

Those measures may represent substantive steps for MLS and they have produced better results in their wake, but they do not level the playing field. Mexican clubs dominate in this competition because they develop and purchase skilled players with their substantially larger budgets and mold them into tidy, well-functioning units.

Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan highlighted the disparity as he reflected upon RSL’s near-miss against Monterrey a couple of years ago. He sagely explained the gap between RSL’s salary structure and Monterrey’s wage bill and noted the team spending more money – and, in this case, several times more – wins more often than not. The results over the past few years aren’t necessarily dispositive, but they illustrate his point rather neatly.

“If we want to close that gap, we have to spend money and start signing the players that can make a difference in that way,” Donovan said. “I think we’re on our way to that.”

The money lavished on Donovan, Omar Gonzalez and Robbie Keane in Los Angeles or Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe in Toronto (just another Canadian Championship away from returning to the tournament when the next edition starts later this year) won’t solve all of the problems, though. Depth remains a genuine concern as injuries and suspensions eventually take their tolls and the spending focuses on the top-end of the squads, while the timing of the tournament also presents significant issues from a competitive perspective.

MLS faces calendar-related hurdles tied into its adherence to the summer calendar. The three MLS quarterfinal entrants boast a collective total of two league games played heading into their quarterfinal ties. Liga MX just finished Jornada 10 with Champions League entrants Cruz Azul and Toluca sitting one-two in the Clausura table.

The top two sides in the Liga MX table, Cruz Azul and Toluca, pose a serious threat to claim the Champions League for Mexico yet again.

CONCACAF adjusted the timing of the quarterfinals to provide MLS teams with more time to prepare prior to the 2011-12 edition, but there is only so much the federation can do without disrupting the tournament. The onus falls on MLS and its clubs to amend their own schedules and rise to the occasions ahead in order to render those concerns irrelevant.

“We need to be coming into our season mid-season sharp because the Mexican teams certainly are,” Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi said. “They’re going to be tough games. They always prove to be. It is a little unfortunate that the MLS guys are so fresh into their season, but we’re doing whatever we can to put ourselves in the best position to succeed.”

MLS and its clubs must adopt that mantra as they plot another attempt to lift the title. The history books do not append asterisks to acknowledge the financial differences or reflect how much MLS clubs really, really tried to close the gap without actually doing so. This tournament produces a binary outcome: success or failure. And, at this point, MLS must climb out of the second category to fulfill its wider ambitions.

“We want to start putting ourselves on the global stage,” Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez said. “We want to be at the Club World Cup. In order to do that, we have to win the CONCACAF Champions League."

The emphasis on meeting those objectives is clear enough. It is now down to the three participating clubs to overcome their limitations, rely on their strengths and satisfy those elusive goals at long last.