Another CONCACAF catastrophe for MLS? Calm down, everyone...

Luis Zubeldia and Robbie Keane (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The CCL wipeout of MLS teams has led to much worry - but Steve Davis says there's no need to panic...

Enthusiasm for what should be a moment of unbridled joy around all Major League Soccer stops – the season starts Sunday, kids! – has been dented slightly by a 48-hour flu of doom and gloom. It’s about the league’s CONCACAF Champions League wipeout.

But folks really should turn that CCL frown upside down; any sense of lasting despair is definitely misplaced.

It’s true that Major League Soccer teams were just this side of awful over the last two weeks, going 0-fer against Mexican clubs in the just-completed CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. Four MLS clubs faced Liga MX opposition – four MLS clubs went limping home after performances that largely resembled the latest exploding hoverboard videos.

But let’s not pull a hammy rushing toward big conclusions here. A quicky history lesson seems in order:

The story of MLS progress in 2015, as judged by a sudden burst of CONCACAF Champions League success, went screaming skyward like a mighty space launch. Montreal came teasingly close to finally conquering this previously unclimbable hill, and the message rang clear in way too many minds: MLS has finally caught up to Liga MX!

Then came the bummer of MLS regress in 2016, as judged by this dire CCL washout. The Galaxy, Seattle, D.C. United and Real Salt Lake all fell, knocking down any pins of alleged progress from 12 months earlier. So the message rang quite clear in way too many minds: MLS remains horribly far behind Liga MX. Like, leaps and bounds behind, the way Tesla is behind Toyota in car sales.

Hyperbolic overreach

So, which version of hyperbolic overreach is right?

Well that’s a trick question. Because neither of these extreme opinions is correct; the truth is right in the rather boring middle. Liga MX is better, although the gap is progressively closing. That was always destined to be the sensible conclusion, no matter where the 2016 quarterfinal series landed.

I know that kind of calm, reasoned view is so much vanilla ice cream, with no fancy little sprinkles or anything. And it certainly doesn’t fit the day’s preferred media model of breathless discourse. But there it is. 

MLS performance in CCL isn’t a yearly check-up on league progress. Sorry… it just isn’t.”

Everything isn’t always a doggone referendum! So it goes, MLS performance in CCL isn’t a yearly check-up on league progress. Sorry… it just isn’t. There are too many other factors at work to make usable math from such a simple, small sample equation.

Admittedly, seeing it that way (as an annual referendum) is understandable; CCL is the closest thing we have to an actual measuring stick for MLS progress. Oh, the savvy eye can certainly see the league’s progress by watching matches. Heck, even the untrained eye can watch an MLS game from, say, 2005, and then witness the big divide in overall quality from a 2015 match. But graphing that actual rise in collective skill and tactical wile in some scientific, data-driven way is tough sledding. So the yearly head-butt into CONCACAF Champions League latter rounds is… well, that’s about all we got.

Which is why every year, as predictable as the changing seasons, we tend to get carried away in interpreting what it all means. 

Prioritizing prep

Montreal’s brush with ultimate Champions League success in 2015 wasn’t about overall league progress. It was about a club that prioritized the tournament, spending big bucks for an extended preseason stint down in Mexico and then rehearsing specific tactics tailor-made for the particular occasion.

This year, most teams went back to the standard MO: prep for the long, coming MLS season in mostly the same way as always, and then hope for the best in the CCL quarterfinals. The MLS regular season remains top priority, which is a reasonable approach. Certain people may claim CCL is a big deal, but in the big picture it just isn’t. The collective bargaining agreements and the clubs’ general approach to CCL tell us so, never mind their public talking points.

So that’s it. Everyone needs to stop making themselves crazy about this stuff. Step away from the ledge the next time MLS clubs crap out in the quarterfinals, and don’t plan any wild, sushi-off-the-body parties when some team eventually breaks through. (Well, unless it’s your team… in that case, feel free to go nuts. And then good luck against Barcelona or Bayern or whomever if your team even gets that far in the subsequent FIFA Club World Cup.)

Liga MX is better than MLS for now. Everyone just needs to be OK with that. Maybe write it down and just look at it awhile or something. The gap began narrowing with the introduction of Designated Players in 2007. Since then, additional DPs, improvement through the middle of the rosters (expedited via the recent Targeted Allocation Money mechanism) and boosts from the still-developing academies are moving the leagues closer still.

Progress vs economics

So progress is coming, slowly and steadily, but the economics are just too hard to overcome right now. There’s more money in Liga MX, and the teams have been around decades longer. Mexican clubs, top to bottom, are better technically and deeper through the roster.

Which brings us to the other current CCL talking point: blaming the schedule. Bottom line here: it ain’t just the schedule. Too many MLS apologists are standing with big pointy arrows, drawing all your attention to the American and Canadian clubs’ massive disadvantage.

Well, it is a disadvantage – just more on a misdemeanor level than felony. In other words, it’s not the big, honking handicap it’s made out to be. The calendar conundrum certainly does no favors for MLS clubs; these quarterfinal meetings are the initial competitive outings for MLS clubs, so fitness, team cohesion and general sharp-edge factor all suffer.

But the four MLS teams were only slightly competitive in the four series. Eight matches brought four draws and four losses. Yuk. If it’s the schedule, MLS teams aren’t going down 15-5 in combined, aggregate scoring.

But again, don’t draw too many overarching conclusions. This time around, L.A. got caught in a back-line rebuild (and has a pretty big problem, it seems, in a very sluggish Steven Gerrard.) Seattle is also moving some pieces around and just lost one half of its killer one-two offensive punch. D.C. United was average at best at the end of 2015 and arguably got worse in the off-season. Real Salt Lake probably looked best of the MLS foursome, but splotchy finishing undid the CCL bid.

In another year, with better versions of these teams, maybe MLS goes 1-3 in the whole set. That’s probably a closer representation to where MLS is vis-a-vis Liga MX. So MLS fans: check your gloom and doom. The league’s 21st season approaches.

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