MLS Out of CONCACAF: Explaining USL’s Success


The MLS’ most presentable and competitive franchise bit the dust late last night in Cancun. The Dynamo who so valiantly fought two years ago in Hidalgo against Pachuca in a similar situation showed little fight or quality yesterday against an Atlante team which is pedestrian at best. The kicker is that Houston in 2007 played at a disadvantage at altitude and with hostile officials and yet still almost overcame Pachuca in extra time.

This time around in a match played at sea level against an opponent which is not one of Mexico’s best, the Dynamo were totally outclassed. Call it the DeRo affect. MLS is not a deep league, and you can not simply replace arguably the best player in the history of the league overnight. But Houston’s performance was typical not of the class organization which the Dynamo are, but of MLS’ continued failings in these competitions. The Dynamo’s elimination marks the ninth consecutive CONCACAF champions tournaments where an MLS team has not reached the final. In the prior four tournaments from 1997 to 2000, an MLS team reached the final three times and won the tournament twice.

Atlante hadn’t won a game in a long time and since their home ground is not at altitude, the normal rationalizations for losing in Mexico do not apply to this match. The same league which saw one of its top teams beaten by Joe Public (which is more or less a semi-pro side based on the wages Jack Warner pays his players) 4-0 at home, and was ranked 77th in the world by the IFFHS last month now has even more egg on its face.

We all try to support the league but it’s about time many MLS fans realized that the ranking of IFFHS while somewhat insulting and probably low was probably more accurate than many claim. MLS is NOT a top 25 worldwide league by any reasonable objective standard, and certainly not a top 10 league as Greg Lalas absurdly claimed a few weeks ago. To also assert MLS is somehow more competitive than any league in the world is silly also. If you look at the qualifiers for the three most recent CONCACAF Champions tournaments, MLS has sent the same two clubs, DC United and Houston three consecutive years while the FMF has had a total of six different participants over that period. (this excludes the qualifying rounds of the CCL)

The Mexican League is supremely competitive. I follow the league more regularly than most MLS fans and can tell you every weekend, who will win a given match is a mystery. MLS has some of the same qualities, but more often than not the same teams emerge victorious. (DC United and LA Galaxy in the early years, Chicago between 1998 and 2003, San Jose/Houston since 2001). Columbus MLS Cup title last season could be a new opening for MLS, a new hope. Or it simply could be a one year diversion from the dominance of  the four teams listed previously which prior to 2008 had participated in every MLS Cup Final.

Houston is an exemplary franchise in MLS. DC United under Kevin Payne general stands out as well, although recent moves have diminished the club, probably just temporarily. Chicago has more or less been consistently good since 1998 despite only one title. (It is worth noting that Chicago stands out from the rest of MLS because they have also developed a disproportionate number of good prospects for the US National Team, which after all was the initial point of MLS) But the rest of the league lacks consistency. MLS apologists use the term “competitive” to mask “mediocrity” and below standard football.

That’s not to say some good football is not played in MLS.  But the league lacks consistency, and that is the bottom line. If MLS had 15 clubs run like the Dynamo this article would be completely unnecessary. The play of USL’s top teams in the Champions League has been outstanding. Why have they been better than MLS?

A variety of reasons, most importantly tactics. The British long ball style employed by Montreal and Puerto Rico has given Latin oriented defenses fits. The Impact and Islanders have looked generally outclassed and lethargic in midfield this entire tournament. Fixture congestion, especially for Puerto Rico who at one point played 17 games in under 50 days certainly contributed. However, USL’s teams do not have the quality on the ball or poise to compete with the best teams from Mexico or Central America.

But USL does have more  speed and athleticism than most Central American leagues, and the two sides participating in the CCL have deadly finishers. This leads to long ball counter attacks that have often times led to goals against the run of play. These goals have had a psychological affect on the USL sides opponent.

The two USL teams have also been rough, almost over the line physical. At times they have been unsporting: but that too fulfills the necessary psychological affect for the underdog teams against the more highly touted Mexican/Central American sides. Mexican teams are generally chippy and psychologically fragile. That plays right into what Montreal and Puerto Rico have been doing in this tournament.

MLS teams do not normally play this way: the league is possession oriented and suited for the summer American heat. USL teams often play the same way. But in this tournament the coaches of Montreal and Puerto Rico, both with European backgrounds (John Limniatis is Greek by birth, Colin Clarke was of course for years a standout with the Northern Ireland National Team playing in the 1986 World Cup) both have employed a very thoughtful tactical setup based on exploiting their strengths and masking their clubs weakness.

USL’s run could end this week. But even if it does, it is important for MLS managers and supporters to note why the underdog USL sides fared so well in this tournament.

MLS coaches for all the credit they deserve for success within the league have not made this adjustment to international play. Let’s hope they can learn from USL’s best and next year come ready to play in this tournament psychologically.  Quite frankly, the league needs some international success, regardless of what many insular minded MLS oriented fans may think.

23 thoughts on “MLS Out of CONCACAF: Explaining USL’s Success”

  1. I’m not too bothered. Why? MLS is intended not to produce superclubs who strive to win international honors but to be competitive top to bottom.

    The emphasis is on fairness and purity of competition within the league.

    These days, it seems as if big clubs regard their own leagues as inconveniences. MLS, although through failure, is refreshingly – albeit probably unwittingly – correct in its attitude.

  2. I don’t need long convoluted explanations like you have provided here.

    I simply know MLS is not as good as many of us thought it was going to be.

    I also know the player development in the league is suffering and that expansion while nice financially is hurting the product.

    Let’s face it. MLS has become a typical American sports league and no longer seems to be integrated in the world of football.

    The failures in CONCACAF cannot be excused. Every year we hear new excuses and we actually hear incredible spin from Garber, et al.

    The league needs some serious fixing.

  3. Ian, it took little joy in defending MLS, believe me.

    I’m with you, but I do think that I made a decent point.

  4. Joey Clams – No offense, but I don’t think you made a decent point at all. Your comment “intended not to produce superclubs who strive to win international honors but to be competitive top to bottom” describes the Mexican League perfectly. And it’s most Mexican league teams that stomp MLS clubs. (In fact, it seems that nearly every club in Mexico has beaten an MLS club at some point over the last dozen years.) That comment also applies to many many leagues around the world. Not every league has an entrenched small elite like the Premiership.

  5. Good summary of why the USL clubs have done well this year in CCL – I’d agree they’ve made some good choice in tactics given what they had to work with.

    I think MLS managers often want to build teams that play “proper” football, the kind they grew up on. I think coaches like Frank Yallop (Earthquakes / Canada / Galaxy / Earthquakes) expect their team to play the ball up from the back, rather than sending very long balls down field and hoping to cause a problem that way and get a finish.

    However player characteristics in MLS make playing good football very hard: players are often not good enough on the ball to keep it, players don’t finish their chances, and players give up the ball in areas of the field (e.g. in their own half) where it is critical they they don’t. A lot of these problems stem from how American players are brought up on football.

    Why we can admire the fine job the USL teams have done in CCL this year, we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that such tactic is proper football. It is US adoption of such “hailmary” tactics which has deprived our young players of the skills and sensibilities they need to compete on the big stage when they grow up.

    One other thought – does the CCL success legitimize USL a bit? Should we pay a bit more attention to USL than we do, give it a bit more respect, perhaps not hang all our hopes on MLS?

    Sorry I keep saying football, you know I mean soccer though.

  6. great article

    being from the pacific northwest, i was always scared that the sounders leaving the USL for the MLS will just mean higher ticket prices for basically the same product with maybe more hype. MLS/USL matchups do not always go in the favor the MLS. the USL montreal impact beat the MLS TFC, and the Vancuover whitecaps fared pretty well against the Galaxy.

    i 100% agree that we should pay more attention the the USL.

  7. I posted this question on my blog: What does MLS clubs have to do to perform better than the USL clubs in these competitions?

    As one who is happy that a USL-1 team here in Austin is going to play it’s 2009 season, I was disappointed and yet not surprised by the result. My thoughts about this is that the heads of MLS puts too much focus on (over-)expansion, SSS and marketing when they should have focus on youth player development, improving the standard level of play for players AND referees and making players’ salaries & wages more livable. Otherwise you would see ex-MLS players heading to USL clubs or overseas for better play and pay.

    Overall the word PRIORITIES is lost in MLS’ vocabulary.

  8. This loss really P’s me Off. And I’m letting everybody know about it! Enough with getting our butts kicked in Mexico and in international matches!
    How many boots do MLS teams need to pick out of their behinds to take international competition seriously?
    We earn zero respect from losing in these tourneys.
    Teams playing in these tourneys should have no offseason. They need to prepare. It ain’t just the players at fault here. The coaching staff needs to study these teams more and they need to dedicate themselves to outcoaching their opponents.
    The fact he had to make 2 changes at the half is case in point. Weak preparation loses games.
    There are no individuals at fault here but enough is enough. Prepare to win and more often than not you will win. Houston has the talent. Proven and well-worn though it may be.

  9. Explain why a MLS team won the last Super Liga… if the MFL is the better league.

    Don’t tell me about preseason or the games being played on MLS soil. If they are the better league, winning Super Liga should be a cake walk. I’m not saying MLS is better then the MFL, I’m saying they are more or less equal.

    Most likely no way to really know, because one team is always playing in preseason form.

    I think both teams played poorly last night but at least the Dynamo were in preseason. Whats Atlante’s excuse…

    1. MLS cannot even be compared to the Mexican League. The two leagues aren’t even close in caliber. Superliga is a sham event where all the matches are played on US soil and for the most part Mexican teams play their reserves. Pachuca, excepted who take the event seriously. MLS teams generally beat EPL teams in July and August also. Chicago beat Everton 2-0 last year. The previous year RSL beat Everton. DC United once beat Newcastle 4-1. Would anyone in their right mind even compare the MLS to the EPL.

      The Mexican League is deep and sports the best players in the Americas not playing in Europe.

      These issues would never have even come up if Garber didn’t make such a fuss about international results a year ago. Now he’s regretting his words, or in typical Garber fashion acting like he never said them.

  10. I’d say u have to swallow ur tounge now saying that the USL was done this week huh?? Islanders FC 1-0 over marathon in their turf. A central American powerhouse…

  11. We need bigger squads and the boys need more money. This will attract better players. Please bring back the reserves and lets combine both league together with pro/reg. There is a need for a salary cap but let’s increase it but not to a point where it can hurt the league. MLS is still a “new” and growing league. It takes time to get anywhere near England, Spain and Italy are with there 1st divisions.

  12. First of all MLS continues to improve as a league, every year the quality of play and the excitement of the games increase. MLS’s international club failings are unfortunate but not the ultimate guide to the level of MLS play. I doubt MLS is as bad as being the 77th league in the world, but it’s certainly not in the top 10 either. Don’t give up, American soccer culture continues to evolve and every new generation produces more talent. The potential that MLS and American soccer have is what makes it so fun to follow, but it’s a long ride. The MFL is still a better league than MLS, but the Mexican national team cannot defeat the US on US soil. USL is not as good as MLS, they are getting lucky right now. MLS needs more local following to help it grow, and that may just take time and changing attitudes towards the game. I still think it will happen. For now I enjoy watching all sorts of football, including MLS.

  13. One of the things USL has going for it is the fans expectations aren’t of a top 10 league. There’s no pressure. My local team, the Charleston Battery, is well supported and sells out our soccer-specific stadium (granted it only seats 5000) regularly. The city loves the team for what it is, and when we played DC United in the US Open Cup final there was tons of excitement. The USL is much closer to the English League Two (or Blue Square) than the MLS is, or ever will be, to the EPL. The teams seem to be more part of the community and the focus isn’t on being THE US league, but rather on providing good soccer for the community. The giant killings like PR vs Marathon are just gravy. Whatever it takes, they need to work on combining MLS/USL into a promotion/relegation setup. THAT would revitalize US soccer more than all the “designated players” in the world. If the Battery had a chance to “move up” this city would lose it’s mind over soccer…

  14. It isn’t that I do not tend to agree with the “tactics” argument the USL teams have deployed but I think you have missed the main point. The USL is proving that “team continuity” from year-to-year is superior to that of signing big talent and making major roster changes in the hopes they gel as a team. Montreal, for example, keeps it corp group year-in and year-out. Their main signing this off-season was Eddie Sebrango (who scored both goals in the last match), someone who had previously played with the Impact and who the club knew could instantly be inserted into the lineup. This should be the lesson the MLS teams should take from this, you can buy all the talent in the World but that doesn’t necessarily make you a good “team.”

  15. FYI
    “The (Impact’s) training camp was a big change and difficult at first,” Sebrango said. “In Vancouver, the style was more direct with the long ball, while here it’s more about possession, about being patient.”

    Clearly, Montreal plays a possession game like the MSL so maybe your tactics argument isn’t as strong as you thought.

  16. Darril- I agree. I’m saying Montreal has adjusted their tactics for the CCL. MLS managers on the other hand don’t make any changes or gameplan based on opposition strengths and weaknesses.

    Colin Clarke has always preferred a direct style and the Islanders have executed their gameplan perfectly in this competition.

    BTW, I’ve spoken to a number of people (I wrote a story on this last year before the CCL- it should be in the archives somewhere) that prefer watching USL because so many teams play directly. I will admit most of these fans were ex-pats and USL resembled a more familiar looking product to them than MLS.

  17. Thank you Kartik for the kind words about the Fire. I was at the Fire v. Everton game and the Fire dominated Everton ( now my favorite EPL team). Would anyone claim therefore that the Fire is close to a UEFA Champions League spot since Everton is? No. (I should point out that the Fire dominated them without Blanco or McBride)

    I’ll just accept that the MLS as a whole cares little about the CCL. THAT IS STUPID ON THE PART OF MLS. With the tv coverage on FSC but more importantly the Spanish language network lack of interest and ability is a huge mistake.

  18. Kartik, I agree, the USL (in general) does play a direct style and the Islanders definitely worked it masterfully in their two wins over Marathon. Also, I agree that Montreal’s coach John Limniatis has game planned beautifully since the Impact’s first loss at home against Toronto FC in the qualification round. Still, I think the USL teams (ironically due to a limited payroll) are forced to keep their nucleus of players and not chase talent and as a result you can see it in the play of Montreal, P.R. and Vancouver (reigning USL champions) that they all have great team chemistry. That is why I expect Seattle to be playoff bound in their first year in the MSL.

  19. I’m sorry but for some of us USL is OUR league, not MLS. My Silverbacks are gone, but I support a league that has placed teams throughout the continent and us not merely interested in the almighty dollar. I support a league that is structured like the rest of the soccer world. I support a league who now has a team in Puerto Rico that has gotten further in the ONLY COMPETITION WHERE LEAGUES OF THE REGION CAN BE ACCURATELY JUDGED, than any MLS team.

    I support USL. While I want MLS to succeed understand that for many of us in the South, MLS is as a foreign as the EPL. It’s as easy to watch and EPL or La Liga match or even FMF as it is to watch MLS. I live nowhere near an MLS city and with Miami’s withdrawal the other day that will continue for another few years at the least.

    With MLS almost a foreign league to me, why would I watch it instead of clearly superior products also on TV?

    MLS fans who look down on USL need to understand why some of us cling to our league because it is the only soccer we have.

  20. MLS will continue to stunt the growth of their league in order to repay their investors – disguised with arguments about parity and no superteams. Only an open league structure featuring promotion and relegation will renew the growth of the sport by empowering the fans and increasing quality of play (not to mention branding and marketing) No more ridiculously small salary cap and roster size. No more cheesy star player assignments. No wonder Beckham wants out.

    Time to break the deal with the corporate devil – no more micromanagement from manhattan. Promotion/Relegation is the key to the future. Every team should have a chance to play in the top division.

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