Tip Sheet: Are MLS teams properly equipped to compete in the CONCACAF Champions League?
LA Galaxy provided the first sign of trouble during the miserable midweek detour through the CONCACAF Champions League. It took a matter of minutes to transform a first-leg lead into a second-leg disaster. The final result – 4-2 to Club Tijuana on the night, 4-3 to the Liga MX outfit – offered a glimpse at the tribulations ahead for San Jose (ushered out of the competition on penalty kicks after a valiant 1-1 draw at Toluca with a tattered squad) and Sporting Kansas City (cast aside by Cruz Azul in a 5-1 defeat at Estadio Azul) the following night.
The continued and substantial difference between Mexican and American teams in this competition raises difficult questions about why the gap persists.
Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan highlighted one component of the problem after the encounter at Estadio Caliente: Mexican sides possess greater depth and experience within their ranks. Xolos boss César Farías guided his side through the tie with noted Champions League plunderer Herculez Gómez limited to two brief substitute appearances and internationals Fernando Arce (injury) and Edgar Castillo (tactical decision) omitted from the efforts entirely. Other players rose to the fore instead through preference and talent to help the Xolos rip through the Galaxy in the opening half and turn the tie in their favor after a 1-0 first leg defeat.
“I think you see the difference in the leagues on nights like tonight,” Donovan said. “We’ve got probably 6, 7, 8 guys who are mature and know how these games are. They probably have 20 guys who know how these games go.”
Depth ties all too intricately to the vastly different salary budget structures in place. Donovan highlighted the economic disparity between MLS and Liga MX sides last month and returned to his point in the wake of this defeat. The restrictions in MLS – even with those Designated Player release valves to bolster the top end and the additional allocation money afforded to participants to supplement the ranks – ensure financial viability with modest revenues, but they hinder the efforts to build a squad strong enough to cope with the demands.
“That’s the difference between payrolls,” Donovan said. “It’s going to be difficult to make that next step until we get on equal grounds that way and you can have the type of players that know how to handle these games.”
Throw in a host of other factors – the scheduling difficulties for MLS sides given the tournament calendar, the squandered chances during the group stage to obtain higher seeds and the wasted opportunities to cobble together more substantive advantages during the first legs at home – and the status quo persists. These aren’t excuses to the continued failures in this binary set of circumstances (and MLS is past the point where any equivocations carry any weight or deserve any consideration), but they do explain why MLS teams fall short so frequently under such rigorous examination.
It will take commitment and investment to change the dynamic and place MLS sides in a genuine position to compete in this tournament. It is down to the league and its clubs to determine whether this competition warrants the expenditures required to meet the established standard. If not, then MLS must accept the reality that these results – barring a perfect run by one of the league’s top sides and some help from the draw or an indifferent Mexican opponent or two – constitute the likely outcome in a scenario where most teams simply aren’t supplied with the necessary resources to match the best of Liga MX.
Five Points – Week 3
1. Will Seattle have Clint Dempsey in Montréal?: Dempsey finds himself in some disciplinary peril after an off-the-ball incident with Toronto FC defender Mark Bloom on Saturday. The Toronto Sun reported on Tuesday that Dempsey would receive a two-match ban from the Disciplinary Committee for lashing out at Bloom, but MLS had not officially announced his suspension by late Thursday night.
The delay stems from the typical appellate process for a Disciplinary Committee suspension. All players have the right to appeal supplemental discipline through the MLS Players Union, but the decision to appeal – including a period to decide on the appeal itself and the subsequent hearing by MLS commissioner Don Garber or his designee – drags out the process through midweek. Seattle coach Sigi Schmid told the Seattle Times he wanted the matter sorted before the club left for Québec on Thursday.
2. Can Toronto FC sustain its bright start?: TFC embarked upon its new era with an important 2-1 victory at CenturyLink Field on Saturday. The home opener against D.C. United offers an enticing opportunity to build upon that foundation. Several people in the Reds’ locker room after that match noted the work still to do. The toil starts in this manageable fixture. TFC must maintain the defensive resolve, the midfield balance and the predatory instincts displayed to foster further growth with yet another positive result.
3. Is Magic Mike ready to appear for Chicago?: Fire forward Mike Magee missed the first two matches of the season with a hamstring knock, but he returned to training in midweek and expressed his desire to feature at some stage in the home opener against New York on Sunday.
Magee also took a few moments to debunk rumors of discontent swirling around since he stepped away from the team for a few days for undisclosed personal reasons:
— Mike Magee (@magee9) March 19, 2014
4. How will LA Galaxy recover from its Champions League demise?: San Jose (exhausted as that tattered squad might be) and Sporting Kansas City can at least share in their sorrows at Sporting Park. Bruce Arena’s side faces an excursion to Rio Tinto Stadium to face Real Salt Lake just two weeks after losing to the Claret-and-Cobalt at the StubHub Center. Arena already proclaimed his distaste for this back-to-back league fixture (he has a point: the Galaxy will play three of them this season) with good reason. RSL will force the Galaxy to chase the game a bit at altitude with its ability to keep the ball even if Javier Morales (back) isn’t ready to feature from the start.
5. Which team will rule the midfield at Crew Stadium?: Columbus and Philadelphia have impressed in limited action with their work through the middle third. Both teams will want to carry those efforts through this potentially engaging affair on Saturday. Keep an eye on Federico Higuaín as this midfield battle unfolds. His movement could stretch out the anticipated three-versus-three combat in midfield, but it could also leave the Crew exposed to deep-lying runs into the final third.