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.