It’s Champions League Time … for Columbus

The UEFA Champions League(UCL) knockout phase is underway. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that it attracts a global audience and captivates fans with competition that features many of the greatest players in the game.

When I was just beginning my journey of becoming a soccer fan(2003), I was struck by the emphasis that was directed at clubs finishing in the top 2, 3, or 4 slots because it meant qualification for the Champions League. Note that my first real exposure came courtesy of the then named Fox Soccer World which was broadcasting the Eredivisie, the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, the EPL and other non UEFA leagues. And as I watched the UEFA Champions League(and thoroughly enjoyed the concept and the competition), my thought turned to my own Confederation(CONCACAF) and I wondered if we had anything similar.

Lo and behold, we did, the CONCACAF Champions Cup(CCL) which has since morphed into the CONCACAF Champions League. So naturally I wanted to know if clubs from MLS were participants and how well they fared against our regional foes. In fact, it turns out that MLS did fairly well in its early years. Admitedly, the Cup competition had many fewer entrants than the recently rebranded CONCACAF Champions League, but that didn’t diminish my excitement in learning that MLS wasn’t as bad as I was reading in the soccersphere. In only its second year of existence, 1997, MLS club Los Angeles was a finalist, losing to Mexican powerhouse Cruz Azul. In 1998 DC United won the title, a feat duplicated by the 2000 Los Angeles Galaxy.

Since then however, no MLS club has made it to the finals. In the 8 completed competitions since then, MLS clubs made it to the semi-finals five times. But that in itself is misleading as for several years, MLS clubs entered the tourney in the quarterfinals. In the 2009-2010 version, DC United won its preliminary tie to gain entrance to the group stage, but after a terrible start failed to advance. Houston also failed to advance when they lost their final group stage match against a team that not only had been winless but had a -17 goal differential(Isidro Metapan of El Salvador). Only Columbus survived the group stage and will play Toluca in a home and home tie on March 9 and 17. Toluca, after finishing as top point getter in the ’09 Apertura, is currently struggling with only 10 points from 8 games in the ’10 Clausura.

Columbus will still be in preseason when they meet. But Columbus coach Warszyka acknowledged that their last few preseason matches are being played with an eye towards the CCL. Unfortunately, the Crew are awaiting word on whether Frankie Hejduk and Guillermo Barros Schelotto will be suspended for the March 9 match due to yellow card accumulation during the group phase.

Many people have written articles attempting to explain the failure of MLS clubs to seriously compete in the regional championship. Among the factors to blame for such poor results are:

  • fixture congestion
  • roster sizes
  • poor team quality
  • MLS teams simply don’t care and play 2nd teamers in CCL matches
  • Lack of incentive

The fixture congestion issue has been attacked by the naysayers who point to Euro leagues and their busy schedules, failing to acknowledge the difference in roster sizes. Some of the bigger Euro clubs have upwards of 60 players(or more) under contract. Beginning in 2009, MLS rosters were reduced from 28 to 24.

Just to fill in the blanks on fixture congestion, it’s going to be a little bit ‘worse’ this year with the league taking off for the two weeks of World Cup group play. Here are the numbers and you may judge for yourself the impact on MLS clubs.

Last summer the preliminary round(home and home) ran from July 28-August 4. For the period running from July 25 to August 4(11 days), RBNY had one league match and lost to W Connection(T&T). OK, we all know they sucked, so no big surprise there. Toronto FC had 2 league matches during that period and lost out to the Puerto Rico Islanders. DC United also had two matches and progressed to the group phase by defeating Luis Firpo of El Salvador. The dates for the preliminary rounds of the 2010-11 competition haven’t been set yet so here are the MLS match counts for the two teams from MLS, LA(MLS Cup loser), and Seattle(US Open winner) for the period July 24-August 11. LA has three league matches and Seattle has four. We’ll have to wait for the completion of the Canadian Nutralite Championship to see if Toronto joins the other MLS teams in the preliminary round.

The 2009-10 group phase(6 matches) ran from August 18 to late October, essentially the end of the MLS regular season. From August 15 to season’s end, DC United had 10 league matches and failed to progress. Houston had 8 league matches and failed to progress, while Columbus had 9 league matches and advanced(as well as winning the Supporters’ shield). For the 2010-11 CCL, Columbus and RSL are in the group phase. From August 14 to the end of the season, Columbus has 11 matches, 2 more than they had in 09-10 and RSL has 10, the same as DCU in 09-10. Too much information? Well, it’s been a big part of the discussion, so I just put it out there.

As to the financial incentive, I give you this from the 2009-10 events…

Quarterfinal Teams$11,000
Quarterfinal Winners$16,500
Semifinal Winners$22,000
Winner Total$77,000

CONCACAF CL prize money

Advance to Round of 16€ 3,000,000
Quarterfinal Winners€ 3,300,000
Semifinal Winners€ 4,000,000
Runner-up€ 5,200,000
Champion€ 9,000,000
Winner Total€ 19,300,000.00

UEFA CL prize money

The money factor, to be honest, has different implications for MLS than from any other league or teams, be it in CONCACAF, with it’s measly prize awards, UEFA, or CONMEBOL for that matter. UEFA clubs use the huge awards not only to balance their books, but for war chests to be used in acquiring new players in the ever upward spiraling marketplace of world class players. For MLS clubs, operating under a salary ‘cap’, the maximum reward of $77,000 is almost meaningless, except to the low salary players for whom any piece of the player share of prize money would have significance.

So what is the incentive for MLS clubs? Respect. Plain and simple. The Mexican league is clearly the dominant league in CONCACAF. Their teams have won 6 of the last 8 CONCACAF club titles, including the last four(Costa Rican teams won the other two). In addition to cementing their perch at the top of CONCACAF, those teams and the league get to extend their brand by their participation in the FIFA Club World Cup. For me, that’s the big reward and it shouldn’t be undervalued.

I guess it’s apparent that I’m a supporter of the CCL. As such, I’ve been collecting articles by folks I respect that touch on the topic. Here are a few….

Tom Dunmore on Pitch Invasion -Jan ’08 – A good Idea

Luis Bueno on -Jan ’08 – An ill bred concept

Steve Davis on ESPNSoccernet -Aug ’09 – MLS not focused

Steve Goff on Soccer Insider= -Aug ’09 – A Player’s thoughts

Bryan Zygo on MLS Talk -Aug ’09 – A Call for MLS to get serious

And here are links to Champions’ League websites.

CAF Champions League(Africa)

AFC Champions League(Asia)

CONCACAF Champions League(North America)

Copa Libertadores(South America)

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