Commentary: MLS' next step forward is clear – win the CONCACAF Champions League
Clint Dempsey's back. The second New York team is just around the corner, and four more teams will be here by 2020. The push for more soccer-specific stadiums will see San Jose and D.C. open their own venues in the next couple years. Is this what MLS 3.0 looks like?
Almost – all that's missing is a CONCACAF Champions League title.
There is no denying the league has made considerable strides in almost every metric on its way to Commissioner Don Garber's stated goal of becoming one of the top leagues in the world by 2022. A win in North America's premier club competition – in its current form – remains conspicuously absent, though.
This month, five MLS teams will kick off their quest to become the first team from the league to claim the region's top prize since D.C. and LA won the old CONCACAF Champions' Cup in 1998 and 2000, respectively, a time – and a tournament – that seem like ancient history.
There's no denying that victories from the Galaxy and United were big news in their own right, but the facts are simple: They won without having to leave their home cities and having played much fewer games than teams in the CCL do today, and they won a tournament with much less exposure.
Nowadays, any team winning the competition must play 10 games, half of them on the road in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, in front of hostile crowds and in steamy conditions on rough surfaces. Any MLS team looking for a win must win a series against at least one, and likely two, talented teams from Mexico. Only one MLS team, Real Salt Lake in 2010-11, has ever come close to accomplishing this when they fell by a single goal at home in the final.
And as even as the US and Mexico have played it on the national team level over the last couple decades, the CCL has remained the domain of better-resourced Liga MX clubs, who won the first five CCL titles and over half the Champions' Cup titles prior.
No matter where you are in the world, continental titles are not just a feather in the cap and a trip to the FIFA Club World Cup (fine prizes in their own right), but a sign that a league is able to both attract and produce top-caliber talent and field quality teams. It's a noticeable miss on MLS' otherwise impressive résumé, and simply put, it cannot be considered a top league in the world and enjoy all the benefits such recognition reaps until one of its teams brings home that CCL trophy.
There is hope for MLS teams, though. For one, the league is actively helping its teams participating in the tournament, whether it's extra allocation money or rescheduling early-season games to accomodate teams in the knockout rounds. On the field, results have improved every year since the CCL took its current format.
On the talent (and by some extension, money) front, things are looking up, too. The acquisition of Clint Dempsey and the ability of the league to hold on to players like Graham Zusi, Matt Besler and quite possibly Omar Gonzalez, to name a few, indicate there are fewer and fewer reservations about spending big and bringing MLS payrolls closer to those of their Liga MX counterparts. Increased spending by itself won't win an MLS team a CCL title, but it will go a long way to removing a major advantage for the Mexican clubs.
In short, there's plenty of room for optimism that this ever-more noticeable trend of CCL futility will come to an end. Until then, though, it will be tough to argue that this is truly one of the top leagues in the world. Then we can argue MLS 3.0 has truly arrived.