Several hurdles stand between MLS and the Copa Libertadores

Brazilian side Atlético Mineiro claimed the last edition of the Copa Libertadores. MLS clubs haven't participated in a South American club competition since 2007.

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More than a few MLS fans will glance enviously toward toward South America this evening with good reason. For yet another year, the group stage of the Copa Libertadores will unfold without an American team in sight.

The prospect of participating in the fabled tournament crops up from time to time. It appeals for a variety of reasons – the allure of playing against fabled sides, the enticement of establishing the league’s credentials in a strong tournament, the monetary benefits of tapping into the considerable television revenues – without ultimately occupying steady ground. CONMEBOL and MLS batted away Brazilian reports about a potential agreement to participate in 2015 last year. The landscape hasn’t changed much, if at all, since then.

Despite the daunting short- and medium-term hurdles in place, the dreams still linger. Perhaps one day MLS teams will take their place alongside counterparts from Mexico and South America. In order to eventually fulfill those wishes, MLS must address a few concerns along the way:

1. CONCACAF Champions League takes priority …

MLS teams owe their first allegiance to their home confederation. It comes at a cost: CONCACAF won’t permit the top sides in MLS to exit its competition (and the potential ticket to the Club World Cup it provides) for a chance at glory at South America. Mexico dispatches three representatives to the Libertadores for competitive and financial reasons, but it retains its strongest sides – at least by the objective means set forth – for the Champions League.

The qualifying procedures used to determine those entrants provide a glimpse at how the process might work for MLS: Liga MX dispatches the finalists from the Clausura (spring) and the Apertura (fall) for each calendar year to the Champions League in the following year and then sends the top three non-qualifying sides from the Apertura to the Libertadores.

Club Tijuana advanced to the quarterfinals of last year’s Copa Libertadores before bowing out of the competition.

Mexico benefits from dispatching its best performers from its most recent campaign to the Libertadores. MLS – with the MLS Cup winner, the Supporters’ Shield winner, the top finisher from the opposite conference of the Supporters’ Shield winner during the regular season and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup winner committed to Champions League duties – would not possess a similar luxury.

2. … and the MLS entrants aren’t exactly storming through Champions League right now

No MLS side has won the Champions League in its present format. Only one team – Real Salt Lake in 2010-11 – has even reached the final. The league must succeed in its home tournament first with some regularity before directing its sights further afield.

3. The schedule isn’t structured to facilitate participation …

Even if MLS wanted to hop into the Libertadores right now, its calendar isn’t particularly well suited for the task. Liga MX mirrors most top South American leagues by playing a split schedule along the European calendar. The setup allows participating Mexican teams to prepare for their Libertadores commitments with competitive league matches in the Clausura. Even the teams participating in the first stage in January play a couple of league matches before taking part in their two-legged qualifying ties.

In rather stark contrast to those foundations, MLS teams are currently in the middle of their preseason preparations. The idea of traveling to Argentina or Brazil to face a top side at the start or in the middle of training camp isn’t palatable to anyone involved. CONCACAF shifted the start of its Champions League knockout schedule into March after the 2010-11 edition to redress its own concerns about MLS teams competing against in-season Mexican sides. CONMEBOL would struggle to do the same to solve any MLS concerns about its own competition.

Morelia started its brief Copa Libertadores campaign in January. The Liga MX side lost a two-legged tie again Colombian side Independiente Santa Fe to exit the tournament after the first stage. 

4. … and the crowded fixture list isn’t helpful, either

MLS teams already buckle under the weight of a congested schedule including league and Open Cup commitments. Shoehorning six group-stage matches into the fixture list – including the corresponding accommodations required to make three lengthy excursions to South America – simply isn’t feasible within the current system.

5. Considerable costs involved raise questions about the enduring benefits

If MLS wanted to press for entrance into the Libertadores, then it would need to commit significant resources to increase the depth and the quality of its squads and revamp its calendar. The modest allocation money rewards offered to Champions League sides would not suffice here and the revenue generated may or may not cover the increased expenses. Any leap into the Libertadores would require significant investment to place MLS teams in a position to compete.

The worst part from MLS’ perspective: the significant outlay provides no guarantee of success. No Mexican team has ever won the Libertadores. Only one Mexican side qualified for the final 16 last year. Morelia just exited the current edition in the first stage despite finishing in the top four during the Apertura. The prospect of expending ample resources to struggle through the tournament makes little sense for a league conscious of its bottom line.

At this point in its development, MLS benefits more from focusing on its primary objectives. There is plenty of work for the league to accomplish at home and in its own region before it attempts to fulfill its South American fantasies at some point down the line.