Champions League changes will shine true light on MLS' actual progress

No more excuses for MLS in Champions League, where Liga MX has dominated. History shows potential benefit to a new playing field.

Maybe we’re too deep in MLS’ offseason, but the news CONCACAF has revised its Champions League format has not caused many ripples.

It’s not that surprising. The competition’s awkward schedule, with group stages and knockout rounds straddling two MLS seasons, means there is potentially little personnel continuity for teams, and the timing of the knockout rounds sees midseason Mexican teams beating up on MLS sides in preseason mode.

MLS might claim to want to benchmark its progress against the strongest regional rival, but the league has been reluctant to accept chastening defeats in direct competition without wanting to add an asterisk beside the date. The shift in the competition structure won’t immediately change any MLS team’s strategic approach, but in taking away some of the excuses, it might prompt an honest analysis of just how far behind the league is.

Just to clarify, the old format saw four MLS sides qualify for the Champions League along with the Canadian Cup winner — currently an all-but-guaranteed 5th MLS spot for Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. They would have to wait to play group stages in the summer and fall of the year after they qualified in the hope of reaching the knockout rounds the following spring (except the Canadian Cup winners, who would at least earn their spot in spring the same year).

Now, MLS teams will go straight into a 16-team knockout tournament (each round played over two legs) running from February to May, with the field in part filled out by a group stage played the previous fall by Caribbean and Central American teams. It means MLS teams competing from February to May are likely to bear a strong resemblance to the lineups that earned their spot in October through December, rather than being the ghosts of decent teams.

For MLS, this is a welcome development — a move puts its idiosyncratic calendar in line with competitive cycles elsewhere and that might actually, in time, come to represent a truly meaningful regional benchmark for the league’s progress. The league’s brain trust has to be willing to see it that way, of course, because there can be a benefit in a status quo that makes direct comparisons difficult. There are, after all, compelling reasons that the stretched player pool of a maturing league in rapid expansion mode may not be flattered by a quest for regional domination.

It will at least create the conditions for lessons to be learned. Whether they’re learned is another matter.

Hungarian lessons

On that note, I’d like to talk about a game that happened over 60 years ago. It’s not a wholly analogous example, but it’s at least illustrative of the types of conversations that can emerge when teams finally start meeting on equal terms.

Sixty years ago, England was in less than splendid isolation from its European peers: in the days before the European Cup, convinced of its own innate superiority as the inventor of the game. Three games against Hungarian opposition over the course of just over a year began to shift perspectives and lay the groundwork for meaningful European competition.

The most infamous of those was the 6-3 defeat England suffered at Wembley in 1953, playing against the “Magnificent Magyars” of Puskas et al. In the middle of the following year, a 7-1 thrashing in Budapest showed the first result was no fluke, but oddly enough it was the final, less celebrated game of the trio, six months later, that arguably had the most lasting impact.

On Dec. 13, 1954, Wolverhampton Wanderers, then champions of England, hosted a friendly against Hungarian club Budapest Honved.  Within 14 minutes of the first half kicking off, Wolves were 2-0 down but managed to steady by halftime. Still, their manager, Stan Cullis, knew that they could never go toe-to-toe with the “delightful” Hungarians, and he duly ordered his groundsmen and several team apprentices (including future Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson) to extensively water the field at halftime. It turned the pitch into a bog, and the remainder of the game into a long ball battle of attrition.

Wolves pulled one back on a penalty just after halftime then scored two goals in two minutes late on to win the game. But if Cullis and the players knew they had been lucky (Atkinson later reckoned the game had the makings of a 10-0), the English press had no such reserve. The Daily Express boasted the result proved English football was still “the genuine, original, unbeatable article ... still the best of its kind in the world,” while the Daily Mail went so far as to proclaim Wolves “the champions of the world.”

That was a claim too far for more objective observers. The former French international Gabriel Hanot, now editor of L’Equipe, wrote: “Before we declare that Wolverhampton are invincible, let them go to Moscow and Budapest. And there are other internationally renowned clubs: Milan and Real Madrid to name but two. A club world championship, or at least a European one … should be launched.”

Wolves' victory, and the misplaced symbolism heaped on it, finally seemed to tip UEFA’s hand. Just three months after the Honved game, a UEFA congress announced the first European Cup, to be played the following year. The English teams, in one last fit of parochial defiance, were not allowed to play in the first competition, though by 1957 the ill-fated “Busby Babes” of Manchester United were representing English hopes.

By the early 60s, the first great period of Madrid domination was established within the competition prototype that dominates club soccer. And arguably, it might never have developed in the way it did were there not such a clear disparity between competitive reality and one country’s myth about itself.

The stakes are not the same for the CONCACAF Champions League. The global marketplace, as much as global competition, has done much to strip a lot of mystery away from assessing the qualities of the sport in its various regional incarnations.

Yet the possibility that, going forward, we might have a more clear-sighted and undisputed view of MLS' progress in our region is something to be celebrated.

And given the path to the Club World Cup offered by the various Champions Leagues around the world, it’s just possible an MLS team gets to call themselves World Champions before Wolves ever do again. But first, all parties concerned have to get real. This is a decent start.

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Graham Parker's column, Targeted Allocation, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Graham on Twitter @KidWeil.