Can you believe that headline? After seeing MLS sides lose in all eight attempts to even get so much as a draw in a CONCACAF Champions Cup match on Costa Rican soil, tonight in the new CONCACAF Champions League USL-1 side Puerto Rico Islanders got a shock 1-1 draw at Alajuelense. Well USL-1 is a second division, no doubt but what does it say when your second division gets a result in its first time out to Costa Rica where MLS is 0-8 through the years in the champions cup? Fluke, or dumb luck I think the Islanders result tells us a heck of a lot about the character of USL-1 sides and why it has been unwise of many to write of the league as being inconsequential. Recall just this past week, I tipped Alajuelense as one of the my five favorites to win the competition. (Along with Saprissa and three Mexican sides) No MLS side had this tough an opening matchup, and yet neither MLS side that played Tuesday night got a result against much weaker opposition. The reality of the situation is this: MLS’ squad limits and single entity structure limit the ability of its teams to compete in major international settings. In addition the MLS salary cap allows many of the middle tier of American players to star in USL while the lower tier ends up filling out MLS squads. It’s simple salary cap math. So if you are an MLS Sporting Director, in order to sign a high profile player you usually have to jettison a middle salary player who instead of staying MLS ends up in USL. Puerto Rico has several such players who would still be good squad footballers if in MLS.
Colin Clark whose tenure in Dallas ended badly with a first round exit from the 2006 MLS Cup Playoffs showed his tactical shrewdness in the match. The Islanders who have been playing very well in USL-1 used the clutch goalkeeping of former Columbus Crew stopper Bill Gaudette as well as some very gutsy midfield play to salvage the draw. The Islanders feature an eclectic mix of players: full internationals like Fabrice Noel and Osei Telesford who featured in last week’s CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, as well as American journeymen players like Gaudette and Josh Hansen and Edson Elcock. The Islanders relishing the occasion and understanding tactical football on the road pulled a shock result, that MLS clubs in numerous opportunities have failed to deliver.
No one in their right mind is going to claim USL-1 has the quality of MLS. But at the same time, I have long maintained that the gap between the two leagues could be the narrowest between first and second divisions in the world. The last two nights of Champions League action where two MLS sides have discredited their league while two USL-1 sides have achieved results speak volumes to that point. For some of us this is not unexpected. Just this evening my colleague Johnathan Starling told me that he believed Puerto Rico would make match of it tonight. I told him that as much as I believe USL sides will perform decently in this event, and show more heart than MLS teams, I just couldn’t see any team with American players going to Costa Rica and getting a result. I was wrong and essentially fell into the same trap I have editorialized against as recently as this morning: Overrating MLS and assuming American players like Bill Gaudette could not perform in hostile Ticos settings because so many MLS players have failed in the very same setting in the past.
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