The group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League is set to start this coming week, and a question on the minds of many MLS fans is: “Will the MLS clubs involved in this competition step up and take it seriously?” After RedBull New York and Toronto FC got knocked out during the qualifying rounds, meaning that the Houston Dynamo, DC United, and the Columbus Crew are the only MLS sides remaining in the second season of the CONCACAF Champions League, meaning that Group D has no representative from MLS. Meanwhile, Mexico’s Primera Division is represented in all four groups by Cruz Azul, Pachuca, Pumas, and Toluca.

In last year’s inaugural CONCACAF Champions League, only two MLS teams were in the group stage since Chivas USA and New England Revolution were eliminated in the preliminary qualifying round, but only one MLS side managed to break out of the group stage, the Houston Dynamo. The Dynamo went on to lose to Atlante, the eventual winner, in the quarterfinals this past winter. Meanwhile, both USL-1 sides involved in the CCL advanced beyond the group stage with the Puerto Rico Islanders making it all the way to the semifinals.

Although the winner of this competition earns a berth in the FIFA World Club Cup, last year it seemed that most of the MLS sides involved in the CCL viewed the competition as a nuisance. In one way, that point of view was understandable since several of the teams involved were dealing with mounting injuries and fixture congestion. Additionally, the CCL began as the MLS teams were making the final push to make it into the MLS playoffs. However, the CCL is still a major competition offering MLS clubs an opportunity to test themselves against clubs from other leagues.

At last year’s MLS Cup, MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced one change that would make the season easier on teams participating in the CCL – these teams would not participate in SuperLiga, the SUM competition between MLS and Mexican teams. As to whether this change will have an impact is yet to be seen, but during this year’s preliminary round the two MLS teams showed more fight then their predecessors did last year. Considering the poor form that New York has been in all season, it’s not surprising that they got knocked out of the CCL.

As a follower and fan of MLS, it would be good to see the MLS clubs advance farther in the CCL this time around. One important step in improving the MLS and its standing in the world is success in international club competitions such as the CCL. While the quality of the clubs from Central America and the Caribbean varies, the Mexican clubs are always strong and pose crucial tests to the MLS sides. The Primera Division is inarguably the best league in North America and arguably better then many leagues in Europe. Until the Dynamo drew against Pumas, no MLS team had ever earned a point playing a Mexican club in Mexico City. The more MLS teams are able to beat Mexican teams in this competition, especially in Mexico, the more respect MLS will earn from football fans and commentators.

If MLS teams take the CCL seriously and play hard, but still fall short in this competition, it will be very important to analyze the reasons for this lack of success. Was lack of depth, lack of talent, lack of proper coaching skills? The league and the fans and the media can learn from these issues and find ways to correct the problems. But, if the MLS teams fail due to lack of interest in the competition, then we learn nothing and the teams should be roundly criticized for failing to take advantage of the CCL and the opportunities it affords MLS.

This week’s CCL Matches:

Tuesday August 18, 2009 –

Columbus Crew v. Puerto Rico Islanders
CD Marathon v. DC United
Pumas UNAM v. CSD Comunicaciones

Wednesday August 19, 2009 –

Houston Dynamo v. Metapan
Dep. Arabe Unido v. Pachuca
Cruz Azul v. Saprissa

Thursday August 20, 2009 –

San Juan Jabloteh v. Toluca
Real CD Espana v. W Connection FC