Analysis

Is it worth it? How chasing Champions League glory can derail an MLS season

ISI Photos-Tim Bouwer

Defending MLS champion Toronto FC has a huge hole to dig out of after focusing on – and falling short in – Champions League. It isn't the first MLS team to feel the effects.

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Of course teams around Major League Soccer would love to finally conquer the Concacaf Champions League. In addition to the big, dangling carrot out there – a spot in FIFA’s Club World Cup – there’s currently an added premium for being the first Champions League winner from MLS.

But there’s an increasingly apparent problem here: chasing CCL glory comes with a high price. MLS teams keep struggling to crack the code of how to give themselves the best chance at Champions League success without completely sideswiping their MLS seasons.

Toronto stumbled to a 2-6-1 start in MLS after just five regular-season losses all last year.

The latest evidence, of course, is Toronto FC. It may indeed be the best MLS team ever, as breathless accounts have labeled, but it’s looking like a pretty bedraggled lot lately. And there can be zero doubt that Toronto’s Champions League chase, going as far as any team could without finally lassoing this slippery beast, is the reason. Chasing Champions League dreams exacted a mighty toll and created a deep crater from which Greg Vanney’s team, having just climbed out of 10th place in the East to a still-modest 9th, must dig itself.

Once we start adding up past evidence of similar suffering, it’s worth asking whether MLS clubs will begin to consider how much effort – emotional and otherwise – to throw at this.

It’s pretty clear that FC Dallas’ Champions League chase in 2017 exacted a heavy toll, although in a very different way. And while it’s harder to pinpoint, Montreal’s brush with CCL glory in 2015 may also have acted as a drag on the Impact’s league performance – although a coaching change and Didier Drogba’s story-book, season-saving arrival added some late-season umph to the effort.

Seven MLS teams have reached the semifinals of the Champions League since the modern era began in 2008 (D.C. United and the LA Galaxy did claim regional titles under the previous format). Only one of those teams has gone on to claim domestic hardware the same year, and that was Toronto FC in 2012, claiming a Voyageurs Cup at a time when true competition for it was pretty scarce, if we’re honest.

However you slice it, it’s clear MLS teams have yet to pinpoint the right balance, one that lets them earnestly target Champions League glory while not undermining league pursuits, which almost everyone agrees are more important.

Sideswiping the season

The last two seasons have demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, the variety of ways that Champions League can wreck the larger cause.

FC Dallas went all-in for Champions League in 2017. Having seen his team capture U.S. Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield in 2016, manager Oscar Pareja sought to seize the momentum. So he leaned fiercely into Champions League elimination rounds early the following year, building the 2017 season on a foundation of early preparation.

Within the first days of February, Pareja had the team in Argentina, pushing players hard in a near-daily series of friendlies. There could be no “ramping up” in this preseason. Rather, it was a doctrine of forced fitness and an immediate jump-start into a competitive mindset.

It very nearly paid off as FC Dallas easily brushed aside Panama’s Arabe Unido in the quarterfinals and then won the opening leg of the semifinal against a good Pachuca bunch. A late goal in the return leg in Mexico spelled doom, however, as Pachuca advanced and then galloped on to the Club World Cup berth.

The impact on FCD wasn’t obvious early in the MLS campaign; Pareja’s men stood tall in Western Conference command as late as July before things unraveled spectacularly.

Pareja now says it’s clear that his team was completely worn down by that point. Going so heavy, so early had taken a toll. He certainly got his team ready for those matches in February and March of 2017, preparing the team physically in a way that allowed his bunch to be good on the field while avoiding early-season injury. But it clearly came at a princely sum: with just one win in its final 14 MLS matches, FC Dallas missed the playoffs for the first time in four seasons under Pareja.

Can Toronto sufficiently recover?

Chasing CCL dreams has driven Toronto FC’s wagon into a different ditch, with issues aplenty on the front end rather than the back.

Eight CCL matches over two months culminated in the April 25 penalty-kick loss to Chivas in the second leg of the final. Along the way, the team’s injury list grew distressingly long: Jozy Altidore, Nick Hagglund, Nicolas Hasler, Jason Hernandez, Chris Mavinga, Drew Moor, Justin Morrow, Victor Vazquez, Gregory Van der Wiel and Eriq Zavaleta have all missed time or been slowed by injuries already in 2018. The team was so shorn of center backs, midfield linchpin Michael Bradley was assigned back-line duty. Surely some part of that – possibly a large part – can be blamed by a grueling tournament run so early in the players’ long, seasonal stretch.

Then there’s Toronto’s win-loss record in MLS. Having used reserve lineups in some games, and certainly feeling the emotional and physical drain in others, TFC stumbled to a 2-6-1 start – the worst MLS start ever for a defending champion. That’s six league losses by mid-May for a team that lost just five regular-season contests all last year.

There’s no doubt that Toronto has the muscle and mentality to rebound, to get healthy, and climb over the lessers to regain playoff grace. But with Atlanta, NYCFC and a couple others looking quite beefy, the Supporters’ Shield is already realistically out of reach. So too, perhaps, is a top-two finish and the accompanying first-round playoff bye.

Who knows what the ultimate cost will be in terms of long-term wear and tear?  And what was the ultimate emotional toll from coming so close, only to see the dream capsize in that agonizing penalty shootout?

Seriously, what’s it worth?

The important subtext here is this: What is a Concacaf Champions League really worth?

The answer may seem obvious – it’s a major, regional championship. But while the wonkish MLS fan may crave CCL glory, plenty of demographic research shows a majority of MLS supporters (or general soccer supporters who are amenable to becoming MLS foam-finger-wearers) care most about one thing: MLS Cup.

They aren’t engrossed with the U.S. Open Cup and aren’t particularly enamored with a regional tournament where games can sometimes require forensic sleuthing to locate on TV.

Does anyone think sponsors will suddenly see an MLS club as significantly more valuable for lifting a CCL trophy? Doubtful. Will local TV rights deals skyrocket? Almost certainly not. Would clubs see season ticket numbers tick increase beyond some marginal percent? Nah.

The theory has long been that ultimate CCL success, with that FIFA Club World Cup berth, would drive even more players of quality toward MLS – but it was always a two-legged stool of an argument. You know what drives quality players to MLS? Money. That’s mostly it, perhaps along with stadiums and training facilities that demonstrate attention and investment. The facilities keep getting better, and money is increasingly available through discretionary funds.  

Sure, there’s some regional pride at stake through Champions League, especially where Liga MX and its long-held dominance is concerned. But even then, what does regional pride really get you? Perhaps some hard-to-win Liga MX fans would finally concede that MLS is worthy of its attention and spend, so there’s that. Still, a few of those hardly seem enough to move the attendance or TV ratings needles in a big way.  

Previously, the enlightened technical director or manager probably knew all this. But there didn’t seem to be a downside to chasing the CCL crown, so why not go for it?

Now? Well, the evidence mounts that there is a downside to a heavy pursuit of that elusive Concacaf Champions League title. And you wonder if team officials will decide the price for MLS teams is too high for anything past a low-speed chase.

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