The CONCACAF Champions League is an incredible idea, the region’s answer to the world’s biggest club competition over in Europe. It’s a chance to pit the best teams from the United States, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica and the rest against each other. It is an overlooked confederation’s staging of a truly massive tournament.
But here’s the catch: it’s awful.
Everything the CONCACAF Champions League could be, should be, might be, it isn’t. Instead, it’s a taxing, costly, irrelevant tournament that isn’t serving anyone. And it’s time for MLS to get out.
In the Champions League’s entire seven-year existence, it has proved to be nothing more than a hindrance to MLS, resting on a promise of greatness to come. But that greatness hasn’t just failed to come — it’s not any closer today than it was in 2008.
The Champions League is an afterthought, and not just for MLS clubs. D.C. United went to Alajuelense for a quarterfinal, and Costa Rican fans didn’t come close to filling a small stadium. Montreal, now on to the semifinals, may have played a thriller in Pachuca, but more empty seats watched than actual people. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the New York Red Bulls struggled to get to 10,000 fans to show up for the group stage, Sporting KC couldn’t come close to filling their barn and the last time the Sounders were in it, the normally-booming crowd was replaced by half as many fans as their average MLS match.
Go to Costa Rica? Empty seats. Mexico? Empty seats. The U.S.? Empty seats.
The TV ratings in the U.S. are abysmal, too. Nothing can make people care about the Champions League. It’s a small, contrived tournament held on inconvenient nights with no prestige and low levels of play.
And to make the Champions League happen, teams interrupt their season to travel as much as 4,000 miles for games. They have to decide whether to play their best players — often resulting in a weakened MLS contest the weekend before and/or after — and even some of the league’s deeper teams still send academy kids and also-rans to the matches.
Expenses for the tournament ran so high, with so little return, that CONCACAF shifted to three-team groups in an effort to reduce travel. Now it tries to sell itself as a marquee competition using a format that no other tournament worth its salt tries, because it makes only a fraction of the money it costs as a result of non-existent interest.
The change to three-team groups should have been CONCACAF’s sign to shut it down. It didn’t. But that doesn’t mean MLS has to play along.
It can’t be said that MLS refused to give the Champions League a chance. It tried to send its best teams, gave clubs in the competition extra allocation and spoke repeatedly about the need for the league’s sides to shine internationally. It did its part in trying to sell the tournament, but it’s as forgettable now as ever before. The competition doesn’t resonate domestically or abroad, and MLS’s reasons for staying in the Champions League look hollower by the year.
If MLS teams could consistently beat Liga MX teams and win the tournament, it would look good for the league. But that’s unlikely, seeing as the competition runs at the worst time of the MLS calendar. The tournament starts eight to 10 months after MLS teams qualify for the competition, and the knockout stage begins during the league’s preseason.
Even if MLS did compete, though, how much would it matter? How many players look at their league and decide to sign elsewhere because the Champions League proves they’re not good enough? Most foreign big name players probably don’t even know the competition exists, let alone who won it. And about that “precious” place in the Club World Cup up for grabs, who played in FIFA’s touring all-star competition last year? Or the year before? If no one cares about the Club World Cup, how good is the enticement?
The only time the Champions League generates any sort of buzz, excitement and interest comes when an MLS side meets a Liga MX side. Those matches can draw crowds. They can ignite passion. They can resemble what the competition is supposed to be about. And yet they don’t happen throughout the tournament. But when they do happen, MLS and Liga MX have to share their money with the rest of the tournament. They share their marketing dollars. They share their sponsor appeal.
If MLS really wants an international competition to earn some prestige and beat teams with cache, they can have it. And they can have it without the Champions League. Call it the SuperLiga, reviving the old tournament that pitted the best from the U.S. and Mexico, or make it a new competition, but dump the rest of the region and give fans teams from the two countries with appeal, quality, size and revenue. Give fans full stadiums of hate and rivalry. Give fans the very best of CONCACAF’s best rivalry. Give fans MLS versus Liga MX for an entire tournament.
Of course, such a tournament requires Liga MX to hop on board. That may be a roadblock, especially because CONCACAF would certainly object, but the promise of actual excitement, the expansion of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry and potential for bags full of cash make it a much better option than the Champions League.
But even if an MLS and Liga MX tournament doesn’t come to be, MLS needs to pull the plug on the Champions League. It could add league matches or even just take the days off. All of it would do more for the league and its clubs than the tournament does. The allocation money to teams in the tournament could go to every team, the losses from the competition would disappear and those dates could go to matches that actually draw.
Maybe SuperLiga is the answer. Maybe an expanded league season is the answer. Maybe the answer is to do nothing. But, despite how good an idea the CONCACAF Champions League is, it’s become abundantly clear that it is not the answer. MLS has seven years of proof.