Just a day before four of his league's teams were set to begin taking on opponents from neighboring rival Liga MX in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber could have issued a challenge, or even hinted at the possibility of this finally being the year MLS teams got the better of their rivals to the South when it really mattered.
No, Garber didn't bother with any such proclamations. Instead, he took the chance to point out the biggest issue MLS has when it comes to trying to beat Mexican opponents in the CCL knockout rounds.
Mexican teams have played seven matches of their Clausura campaign by now, and are in midseason form. MLS teams are in the midst of preseason, with the start of the regular season still another week away. Speaking on Monday at the MLS announcement of its new corporate partnership with TAG Heuer, Garber made it clear he and MLS feel it's time for CONCACAF to make a change.
"I'd love to see CONCACAF understand the importance for the competition for MLS to be in stride when the most important games matter," Garber said. "Hopefully, with new leadership and perhaps with a better understanding of what would need to happen to make that completion more valuable for them and the rest of the countries in the region, everyone might look at a different format.
"I think we are at a distinct disadvantage, and I think it hurts the competition of the tournament."
Garber's concerns came on he heels of comments made by former LA Galaxy standout and current Pachuca defender Omar Gonzalez, who echoed some of the same sentiments regarding the uphill battle MLS teams face.
"Well, [MLS teams] are still in preseason, it's not like their games have started yet, so that's where the difficulty lies," Gonzalez told ESPNFC. "We're seven games into the season and we're pretty much hitting full stride, so it's going to be very difficult for the MLS teams to be match fit."
Complaints about the scheduling issues weren't as vocal a year ago, when the Montreal Impact made its run through to the CCL final, but Montreal's success in the knockout rounds were very much the exception, as MLS teams have traditionally struggled badly against Liga MX teams in the knockout rounds.
On Tuesday night, both the Seattle Sounders and D.C. United posted less than ideal results in their CCL quarterfinal openers. The Sounders settled for a 2-2 draw against a short-handed Club America side in their home leg, setting up an extremely difficult — though not impossible — task of having to beat Las Aguilas at Estadio Azteca (or finish in a tie of 3-3 or greater) in the return leg. On the surface, Seattle can feel good about standing toe-to-toe with a tough Club America team despite having yet to play an official match this year before Tuesday. On the other hand, the Sounders will be considerable underdogs when they head to Mexico City.
D.C. United's night wasn't any better. Despite creating some chances and showing more promise than perhaps expected, D.C. still failed to score a road goal against an awful Queretaro side that walked out of the first leg with a 2-0 victory heading to RFK Stadium for the return leg.
The LA Galaxy will look to break through Wednesday night against Santos Laguna, while Real Salt Lake heads into its quarterfinal clash with a stacked Tigres side. Both teams are underdogs, even the star-studded Galaxy, who still have to contend with the fact all their new additions have yet to play an official match together.
Finding a middle ground that would allow MLS teams to compete with Mexican teams on equal footing would be pretty close to impossible given how their schedules sit in the calendar. MLS teams are in midseason form in the summer, when Mexican teams are just wrapping up the offseason. Even if CONCACAF turned the tables and contested the knockout rounds in late, when MLS teams are deep in their season and Mexican teams are beginning the Apertura, the complaints would then come from Liga MX. There is also the question of weather MLS teams would be ready to sacrifice league matches, or field half-strength teams, during the stretch run to the playoffs. As it stands, MLS teams often field weakened sides during the group stages, which take place in the fall, when MLS teams are busy jockeying for playoff position in league play.
One compromise could be to push the CCL knockout rounds to April and set the final for early May. That would allow MLS teams to have up to a month of league play under their belts, while still having the tournament end before the Liga MX Clausura playoffs begin. CONCACAF could try to convince to Liga MX to push its Clausura playoffs a bit later, but that could be extremely difficult.
If MLS teams wind up being swept out of the CCL quarterfinals this year, that sort of bloodbath could lead to some serious change in the scheduling. It could also raise familiar questions about whether MLS is really closing the gap on Liga MX, or actually stuck in place. As much as Garber expressed his concern about what he sees as unfair scheduling, he didn't sound overly concerned about the prospects of MLS taking a beating in the CCL quarterfinals.
"I think we've got a tough bunch of matches, but if we win all of them, I don't think that anybody would be thinking that Major League Soccer is viewed any differently than if we only won one or only won none," Garber said. "I'm not worried about it, but I'd like to win though."
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