32014_isi_donovanlandon_ccl_mlsmj031214157 Michael Janosz/isiphotos.com

Why Did MLS Crash out of Champions League? Money

Three Major League Soccer teams were eliminated from CONCACAF Champions League play this week, an embarrassing turn of events for a league that can sometimes be pennywise and pound foolish.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
March 20, 2014
11:59 AM
SO ANOTHER SPRING is once again upon us which means melting snows, swallows returning to Capistrano and, for American soccer fans, seeing its domestic teams crash-and-burn out of the CONCACAF Champions’ League, almost always at the hands—and feet—of teams from South of the Border.

The past two nights have seen all three MLS entrants in the Champions’ League dispatched by Liga MX sides, with two of the three losses being as embarrassing as they were emphatic. Sadly, however, deep down few in American soccer fans were surprised.

MLS teams came into the week with a terrible track record against Mexican clubs, and after these games, MLS teams have been outscored a whopping 71-18 in win-or-go-home games of the CCL played in Mexico. Liga MX teams have now won a staggering 20 of 22 series against MLS teams.

That this has become an annual and easily predictable occurrence is one of the biggest disappointments for both fans of Major League Soccer and the power brokers of the league.

Sporting Kansas City is the reigning league champion and features a pair of players likely to make the U.S. World Cup team, while the Los Angeles Galaxy are the league’s perennial glamor team with, by MLS standards, a big payroll and several high-profile players. In other words, they are the type of teams MLS needs to succeed in international competition if the league is going to shake the perception that it isn’t as good as its Mexican neighbor (let alone the higher profile teams of Europe and South America).

But both SKC and LA flamed out in eerily similar fashion: Both gave up a pair of early goals; scrapped back with a score to make things interesting; and then gave up several late goals that did little to change the result but hurt in the scoreboard of public perception.

It should be noted that the San Jose Earthquakes took its Goonies Never Say Die attitude to Toluca, which hasn’t lost at home since September, and gave Los Choriceros all it could handle.

Toluca needed a wonder strike by California-born Mexican international Isaac Brizuela and a dubious offside call that negated what should have been a game-winning goal by Alan Gordon to put them in position to prevail in penalty kicks. Despite the heartbreaking and arguably unjust elimination, the Quakes did MLS proud.

But in the end, elimination is elimination. And the formula is the same: Liga MX teams are deeper and more experienced and have more skilled players on the field at the same time than their MLS counterparts, which is why we see the same results. Every year.

MLS commissioner Don Garber has said that it is a major goal to have MLS teams win the CCL and get to be the confederation’s representative in FIFA’s annual Club World Cup. This would give MLS teams a chance to face off in games that aren’t exhibitions against the reigning kings of the UEFA Champions’ League and South America’s Copa Libertadores. A few wins in that context could start to change the perception of the league on an international level.

"We have to do better in the Champions League,” Garber told reporters after his teams laid a CONCACAF goose-egg last year. “I think the opportunity for an MLS team to win the Champions League in this region and go to a World Club Championship and compete against some of the best clubs in the world is an important goal."

But why does this keep happening and what can be done about it? And, more importantly, is MLS willing to make the changes needed to compete with its Mexican rivals?

Being good enough to consistently win international tournaments takes a serious commitment to player development and retention that so far in its history MLS has shown a reluctance, and often refusal, to make.

In the end you get what you pay for. And for all of Garber’s lip service about the importance of the Champions League, consider this: In yesterday’s key game, against elite, highly compensated international-caliber players, Kansas City’s defense featured 22-year-old fullback Kevin Ellis, with all of three MLS career games and a 2013 base salary of $46,500, and fullback Mechak Jerome a 23-year-old Haitian with nine MLS starts who made $35,125 last year. You aren’t going to win many international competitions when the defenders who take the field make less than fast-food managers.

Predictably, Cruz Azul torched Sporting on the flanks. “We gave up four goals from the outside wing channels,” Kansas City coach Peter Vermes told MLSsoccer.com. “That was the difference in the game.”

When Kansas City is healthy, both Ellis and Jerome are reserves, but that’s the point: Injuries, fatigue, and suspensions that lead to such low-paid and inexperienced players having to play in such important game are part of the obstacles teams need to overcome to win international tournaments. And MLS teams don’t have the quality of depth that allows them to compete with their Mexican neighbors when the starters aren’t available.

For instance, yesterday one of Toluca’s reserves was Miguel Angel Ponce, an Olympic gold medalist and member of the Mexican senior national team. Tijuana brought U.S. international and former Liga MX scoring champion Herculez Gomez off the bench. (Cruz Azul didn’t use a sub in either leg of its series with KC.)

“I think you see the difference in the leagues on nights like tonight,” Landon Donovan told reporters after the Galaxy lost to Tijuana. “We've got probably six, seven, eight guys who are mature, who know how these games are. They've got 20 guys who know how these games go. And that's the difference between the payrolls.”

“It's going to be difficult to make that next step until we get on equal ground that way so you can have the type of players that know how to handle these games.”

And that gets back to just how committed MLS actually is to doing well in international competition and raising the standard of play in the league. Because for all of Garber’s talk about the importance of the CCL, he’s the point person of a league that has spent its entire existence trying to do things on the cheap, that speaks of wanting to be one of the best leagues in the world but at the same time does all it can to limit player movement and to keep salaries as low as possible.

Keeping salaries manageable is a noble goal but, once again, you get what you pay for. To be clear, tripling Mechak Jerome’s salary isn’t going to suddenly make him a better player. But a bigger budget allows MLS teams to bid for better players, to pay for a higher-level talent both in the starting lineup and in reserve, and to retain key players when they earn a raise with their play on the field. It eliminates the need to put such inexperienced players on the field.

The financial commitment isn’t just about salaries, of course. The cheapest way to create depth is to develop it yourself, but that takes a lot of cash too. To consistently win in CONCACAF and beyond, MLS teams need to develop better players, and more of them.

To its credit, MLS has made a lot of gains in player development with its academy teams, and also with the Galaxy adding its own USL Pro team for its reserves. But the other MLS teams need to follow suit with their own third division side. And then MLS needs to give the teams the latitude to sign as many of their academy players as they feel merit a contract.

College soccer takes a lot of undeserved blame for the ills of the game in this country but there is also the unmistakable fact that most of the elite American players now leave college early or never play college soccer. MLS needs to create more avenues to make it easier for MLS teams to sign and develop the top young American players—that means signing far more young players than the league has in the past and, just as importantly, giving them a place to play regularly competitive games in USL Pro.

This won’t be cheap, but if MLS is truly serious about succeeding in international competitions, these are investments they have to make. Otherwise, it’s just going to be more of the same, both in terms of lip service from the league and with MLS teams being eliminated in the CONCACAF Champions League.

OK, your turn. Tell us what you think of MLS' performance in the CONCACAF Champions League, and this article.

Brooke Tunstall is a veteran journalist who has covered Major League Soccer since its initial player dispersal draft. You can follow him on Twitter.

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