How not to screw up CONCACAF Champions League: a guide for MLS
CCL 2014-15 is nigh. Austin Fido is here to ease you back in to the CONCACAF Champions League chat with some friendly advice for MLS’s representatives…
CONCACAF Champions League returns August 5th with the opening round of the group stage for the 2014-15 edition. Five teams from MLS will enter, and we already know at least one won’t make it to the quarterfinals: Montreal and RBNY are in the same group.
Last year’s edition saw three of MLS’s five runners make it to the quarterfinals, and all were bounced by Liga MX clubs. Few will be surprised if that happens again this time around, but there are one or two things the North American contingent in CCL could do to boost its chances against the heavier-weight teams in the tournament.
Yes, there is plenty MLS could do over the next few years: raise the salary cap, improve the opportunities for reserve and youth team players, generally make rosters larger and deeper. But none of those will help the teams competing in the 2014-15 group stage of CCL.
This advice is for right now: five things all five MLS clubs in this year’s CCL could do to improve their odds of not getting embarrassed by Cruz Azul in March.
1. Don’t prioritize friendlies over competitive games
Oops. Too late.
Despite the lesson of last year, when LA Galaxy decided to get involved in the International Champions Cup, MLS has once again put itself at a slight disadvantage with CCL scheduling because it just cannot turn down the chance to help out a European club in need of a scrimmage.
Last year, the Galaxy had a pretty good CCL group stage, and headed into the last round of matches with a 100% record and a very decent shot at high seed (and home advantage) for the quarterfinals. All that was required was to go to El Salvador and not lose to Isidro Metapan, maybe even pull out a win and push for the top seeding.
Didn’t happen. Bruce Arena saw it coming: his team was stretched with end-of-season MLS commitments, and he offered some plaintive nonsense about the North American league needing to have the last round of group stage fixtures off so it could focus on its season finale. He said he hadn’t been strong enough to get it changed. He said it was his fault.
Yes it was, Bruce. Because your team was jogging around for an exhibition game in Miami when the first round of CCL kicked off. If you didn’t want to play on the very last set of match days, maybe you should have been available for the very first? (Point of information: the ICC schedule was announced late May 2013 – before the CCL draw, let alone the schedule announcement, which was in July.)
We all make mistakes. Curiously, MLS’s response to the example set by LA last season has been to double down. The league has gone all in on prioritizing a friendly over an actual tournament: the All-Star game is on August 6th – smack in the middle of the first round of CCL match days.
One team from MLS – Montreal Impact – will play during the August 5-7th fixtures; the rest are sitting out the first round. All will play the during the final round of CCL games.
As for Montreal’s presence in the first week of the group stage: L’Impact is in the same group as the New York Red Bulls. There are only three teams per group. If both MLS teams in Group 3 took a week off, then CONCACAF would need to fit the six games required for that group into five rounds of matches. Does not compute.
So Montreal, coincidentally the worst of the MLS teams in CCL this year and least likely to lose players to the All-Star game, drew the short straw.
On the bright side, the schedule could work in the Impact’s favor, because MLS clubs need to…
2. Take full advantage in the early rounds of the group stage
Assuming the negotiations over the new Collective Bargaining Agreement don’t spill over into March and force MLS clubs to withdraw from the CCL knockout rounds or field teams comprised entirely of those stand-in referees who stepped in while the PRO was haggling with its members, we’ll hear a familiar complaint as the quarterfinals draw near next year: it’s MLS’s pre-season, most of the other leagues in CONCACAF are in mid-season.
This is a fact. Another fact: the shoe is on the other foot in the group stages. Want to improve your CCL performance? Get a high seed for the knockout rounds and secure home advantage for at least the quarterfinals.
Home advantage does make a difference. In the 2012-13 edition, when LA and Seattle made the semifinals, both teams had the higher seed for their quarterfinal. The Sounders even achieved that elusive prize: beating a Liga MX team in a knockout round. UANL Tigres got nervous about risking players as their regular season approached its end (sound familiar?), sent a reserve team to face a weaker-looking opponent on the road (sound familiar?), and lost (sound familiar?).
Home advantage isn’t a guarantee of anything (Toluca lost last year’s final to Cruz Azul despite playing the second leg at home), but it is an advantage (the team playing the second leg at home won five of seven match-ups in last year’s knockout rounds).
For MLS clubs, that means exploiting the one major advantage they have in the group stage: they are in mid-season form, and most of the other teams are not.
The difference between a team just getting to know itself and one with some chemistry was perhaps best illustrated by Sporting Kansas City’s experience last year.
KC had a tough schedule on paper: playing both away games of its group stage first. But the MLS club went to Nicaragua at the beginning of August (no such luck this year…) and comfortably beat Real Esteli. Then traveled to Honduras at the end of that month and beat Olimpia.
It all seemed set fair for maximum points and a high seed. Unfortunately, when Real Esteli turned up in mid-September, they were a little less easily subdued. KC drew 1-1. Nor could the home team find a way past Olimpia in October – that game ended 0-0.
If early season form is a big deal for MLS clubs in March, there is no reason to believe it doesn’t have an effect on other teams in August. MLS should try to take advantage, as Kansas City did last year – and as only Montreal is fully able to attempt this time around.
To do so, the MLS representatives will have to follow another example more or less set by KC in CCL last season…
3. Don’t let up: play your best team to get your best result
Last year, all the MLS clubs except Montreal played during the last round of the group stage. And they each had something at stake.
Houston had to travel to Panama and not lose to Arabe Unido. The Dynamo lost 1-0.
KC, as discussed, hosted Olimpia, with an eye on a win to maximize their seeding. Drew 0-0.
LA needed a win in El Salvador over Isidro Metapan, or at least a draw, to get their best possible shot at home advantage in the knockout rounds. Trounced 4-0.
And San Jose needed a win at home over Heredia. The Quakes won 1-0. With all to lose and everything to gain, San Jose put a first team on the field, went for it, and snuck into the quarterfinals as the lowest seed.
Let’s give KC a pass, because they did go undefeated in the group stage, and their last-day lineup was substantially stars and starters.
You can even forgive LA for the hubris of sending the same set of reserves that had done the job in the preceding group stage games to finish things out in El Salvador.
Houston dropped the ball. The Dynamo sent a mainly reserve team line up out on the road with scant evidence it was up to the task. A similar approach had only yielded a 0-0 draw with W Connection in Trinidad earlier in the groups.
A draw would have suited Houston, but the message sent by the lineup was one of not taking the challenge posed by Arabe Unido entirely seriously. It is to the benefit of CCL as a competition when middling reserve teams get punted out by sides who actually give a damn.
If you need the win, play like you need the win: send your best players. And for MLS clubs, who ought to be thinking ahead to the knockout rounds and getting the best possible chance at a high seed, every group stage game is a must-win.
4. Have a closer look at the Liga MX clubs
Mexican teams are the undisputed masters of CCL, so perhaps it’s no surprise MLS clubs seek to copy their approach to the tournament.
The Liga MX sides typically swagger in to the group stage with a bunch of reserves, and swagger on to the knockout rounds without too much effort. It works – if you’re a Liga MX club.
MLS teams would appear to have studied the Liga MX approach to CCL closely. They too will frequently send the reserves to Guatemala or Jamaica, or wherever CONCACAF needs them to be in the group stage.
The problem with copying the Liga MX approach is twofold. First, the Mexican teams are better than the MLS teams: they have deeper squads, are able to stack their rosters with more talent, and have earned the right to enter each tournament with confidence since one of their own has won it for the past nine years. MLS teams simply don’t have the depth or history to presume to brazen their way through the groups with the same success.
Second, MLS seems to draw the wrong lessons from the Mexican example. The key takeaway seems simply to be: play the reserves. But that isn’t exactly how Liga MX teams go about it.
Last year, Toluca played a lot of fringe players in the group stage, but first-choice ‘keeper Alfredo Talavera was there to backstop the team for almost every game. Tijuana played its top ‘keeper, Cirilo Saucedo, and club captain Javier Gandolfi for every group stage game except the last one – when qualification had already been assured.
It is a rare sight to see a first-choice MLS ‘keeper start a group stage match. Why play defensive leaders? Perhaps because goal difference, not goals scored, is the first tie-breaker in CCL.
Not every Liga MX team takes the same approach. But Cruz Azul opened the tournament with a strong lineup against Herediano, the Costa Rican side which had made the quarterfinals at Real Salt Lake’s expense in the previous tournament. Once the opening game had been won handily, La Maquina put the brakes on and relaxed a little – but still won every match in its group.
America was arguably the favorite to win last year’s tournament when it started, but it slipped up against Alajuelense in Costa Rica, and went into its final game needing a win at home. A pretty much full-strength team was sent out to get the points. It failed, but it would be harsh to accuse America of not having done its best to rescue the situation.
San Jose followed the America model: failing with reserves on the road, but attacking the tournament with a first team when it was all or nothing. Houston stuck with plan A: the second team. The Quakes went through, and scared the hell out of Toluca. The Dynamo stalled in Panama.
LA stuck with its reserves too, and bounced itself out of a decent seeding. Sporting Kansas City tried something akin to Tijuana’s approach – keeping a core of first team players in the lineup to pick up the points needed for qualification.
KC had problems winning at home – but it isn’t fair to say it was because the team wasn’t taking the tournament as seriously as it should have done. It came up against spirited opponents who played well on their respective days. Conversely, LA Galaxy just didn’t seem to want the points on offer in El Salvador enough to really extend themselves to chase them.
When it really counts, the Mexican teams do not shirk the challenge. They’ll put the big names out there if they have to, or if they want to be sure to get off to a good start.
MLS clubs should be trying a little harder to win every game than their Liga MX counterparts, because a higher seeding should mean more to them. Instead, they are too often looking like they are trying to be more casual in their approach to the group stage than the Mexican teams. And, last year at least, this was reflected in the seedings for the knockout rounds: the MLS teams were the lowest.
5. Act like you want to be in CCL from the start
It all boils down to something quite simple: if MLS wants to win CCL – and the league likes to trot that line out often, as a marker for its ambition – then MLS needs to walk the walk.
The current standard MLS effort is desultory: qualify for CCL, gobble up the allocation money, then whine about fixture congestion, send some reserves out to underwhelm in the group stage, and – if you get that far – get beat by a Mexican team in the quarterfinals.
When MLS clubs put in a little more effort, they do OK, even well.
Real Salt Lake prioritized CCL when it qualified in 2010-11. The big names played most games, even in the group stages. Liga MX wasn’t separated from MLS in the group stage in those days. RSL beat Cruz Azul, 3-1, at home, and lost just 5-4 away. If that had been a knockout series, the MLS club would have advanced on aggregate.
RSL won its group, and got to the final.
You want to say it had an easy ride: no Mexican teams in the knockout rounds until the final? Go right ahead, but RSL did beat a Mexican team: Cruz Azul. Beat that Mexican team into second place in a four-team group.
Since the tournament started calling itself “Champions League”, there hasn’t been a final without either Cruz Azul or Monterrey. RSL beat one of the most accomplished teams in the history of the tournament by doing it right: taking things seriously from the start.
Yes, RSL wasn’t quite as good as Monterrey in the end (lost by one goal), and yes, RSL didn’t make it out of its group the following year. But RSL showed respect for the competition and itself. Losing to Monterrey is no great shame: Los Rayados won two further CCL titles over the next two years. For all we know, Monterrey would still be winning CCL titles, but for the fact CONCACAF doesn’t let the prior year’s champion back into the tournament to defend its title.
You can say RSL lost to Monterrey because Mexican teams have spending power and depth and infrastructure that MLS clubs cannot touch. This is probably true. It is also true that Monterrey happened to be the best team in the region at winning knockout tournaments from around 2009 to early 2013.
One day, MLS teams may be richer, bigger, and better than their Mexican counterparts. Right now, they are not. To win CCL, the teams from MLS need to work a little harder than those from Liga MX.
The Mexican challenge is not insurmountable. Between 1997 and 2000, the CONCACAF regional tournament was “Champions’ Cup”, a week-long knockout tournament played in a single city in the US. Home advantage was sufficient to keep MLS clubs competitive: they made three out of four finals in those years, and won the Cup twice.
Once CONCACAF stopped holding the tournament exclusively in the US, and turned to a more equitable home-and-away format, the MLS presence in the final round dropped off considerably. Only RSL has managed to reach the championship game of the competition in the 13 editions since LA Galaxy won the regional title in 2000.
It is fair to say MLS lacks the resources to compete with Mexican teams day-in, day-out. But it is equally fair to say MLS clubs aren’t trying hard enough to win under current circumstances.
The disparity between the resources Liga MX clubs can put into squad building and those allowed to MLS teams is significant. But it doesn’t hold as an excuse if MLS isn’t making the most of what it already has.
The group stage of CCL is just four games. Four games the clubs involved have known they’ll be playing for the best part of a year. If MLS is serious about trying to win CCL, its teams need to put the effort in now: play their best players, try to win every match, and seek the highest possible seeding for the knockout rounds.
Then strengthen for the challenge ahead in March, knowing the advantages to be gained in the groups have been secured.
It may take a while before MLS is the richest, deepest or strongest league represented in CCL. But at the moment, the Liga MX teams aren’t just playing better than MLS in this tournament, they’re playing smarter.
If MLS can’t raise its CCL IQ, it’ll take more than some cash and a reserve team to bridge the gap between its clubs and those south of the border.
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Austin Fido is OTF’s CONCACAF Champions League obsessive. Feed his addiction @canetop.