It’s still a fantasy scenario, but it’s such a tasty one that people can’t seem to leave it alone: MLS clubs participating in the Copa Libertadores and matching up with the big boys of South America in a tournament that counts.
It’s not going to happen yet. Last week, MLS Commissioner Don Garber stressed CONCACAF Champions League must come first, and CONMEBOL all but closed the door on MLS involvement for now.
But there could come a time very soon when the conditions are right. And next week, there will be a very good case study for MLS fans to follow. When Club Tijuana travel down to São Paulo for the second leg of their Copa Libertadores Round of 16 series vs. Brazilian powerhouse Palmeiras, we’ll get to see a simulation of exactly what an MLS team would go through.
Tijuana are a Mexican club, of course. But geographically, they might as well be in Major League Soccer. Los Angeles, San Jose, Portland, Salt Lake City, even Denver are all closer than their nearest Liga MX rival.
On Sunday, Los Xolos will board a commercial flight at General Abelardo L. Rodríguez International Airport, switch planes in Mexico City and continue through to Brazil. That’s 13 hours of combined flying time with a layover, plus a time change of four hours.
As if going up against the three three-time Libertadores champions and eight-time Brazilian league champions isn’t daunting enough, Tijuana will have to combat the specter of international travel in a way that is unprecedented for any North American club team in a tournament that counts.
How they perform on May 14 in front of 40,000 green-clad hysterical fans at Pacaembu Stadium will go a long way toward suggesting how an MLS club might do in that same scenario.
MLS clubs have trouble bouncing back on cross-country flights – how on earth could they possibly adjust to a one-off in far southern cities like Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires or Santiago?
Even MLS’ resident South Americans are wary.
“If distances are very long for us within the US going from one side to the other, imagine having to travel long hours and perform at a top level,” Seattle’s Argentine maestro Mauro Rosales told FutbolMLS.com (see the video below for more). “It’s not only how long it takes you to get there, it’s arriving from a long trip and giving 100 percent.”
But still, there’s that sense of mystery and wonder of how a team would do under such circumstances. It’s happened a few times before: D.C. United were special invites to CONMEBOL’s Europa League-equivalent Copa Sudamericana in 2005 and ’07, and both Kansas City and the MetroStars participated in the now defunct Copa Merconorte in 2001, traveling to Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador.
Only once, though, has an MLS team made the sort of Tolkien-esque trip south that Tijuana are about to undertake. D.C. were pitted against Chilean club Universidad Católica in the quarterfinals of the ’05 Sudamericana. And nearly did the unthinkable.
After drawing the first leg 1-1 at RFK, they boarded two commercial flights that required nearly 12 hours of airtime with a layover in between on the way to Santiago. That’s nearly 5,000 miles – more than the distance from New York to Moscow.
And on a Wednesday night in September, playing at more than 1,700 feet in elevation, Christian Gómez & Co. (at top) scored twice in the first 20 minutes – beating an Argentine ‘keeper in José María Buljabasich who, earlier that year, had set a modern record with 1,352 straight shutout minutes – to put the Chilean powerhouse on the ropes.
Then, just before halftime, the dam broke as Católica pulled one back in the 40th, tied the aggregate score in the 70th and then scored the heartbreaking clincher four minutes from time to eliminate United 4-3 on total goals.
WATCH: Rosales, Espíndola talk Libertadores
Sure, Católica may have been a better team at the time and with unique home-field advantages. But it’s hard not to think the travel experience didn’t play a role in United’s undoing.
“We had a 2-0 lead away from home against a good team,” former D.C. ‘keeper Nick Rimando recalled to MLSsoccer.com earlier this week about that experience. “Does the final result reflect us getting tired in the second half? Maybe. Maybe we did.”
But the Real Salt Lake netminder is adamant that the experience was so wholly unique and so special, that it’s absolutely the sort of thing MLS teams should be undertaking – under the right circumstances.
“If we’re invited back [for a South American tournament], taking charters is a must,” he continued. “The talent level in MLS has improved since then, and there’s a great chance we could advance."
Not even Tijuana are chartering down to Brazil next week, however. And within MLS, only the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders have regularly chartered their own flights for CONCACAF Champions League play or other international friendly tournaments.
So there’s still a culture change to be made across the board, not just within MLS. But to evolve and join the best in the world, there needs to be a bit of that dreamy mentality. Sure, there may be more of an immediate need to win the CONCACAF Champions League. But there’s nothing wrong with visualizing how and when to go further.
“Right now, we limit ourselves by being only in the CCL,” Rimando continued. “If we do decide to participate in the Libertadores or Copa Sudamericana, that gives us a chance for something else to win, something to pace ourselves alongside the best teams in South America.”
This may be a closed door for now. But hopefully not much longer.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.