Jonah Freedman lays out four solid points as to how to get MLS players and teams more prepared to compete in the CONCACAF Champions League on a regular basis. While it is true that the USA through MLS is a solid #2 in the region, some of this comes from being good but not great.The top teams of Honduras and Costa Rica have historically better than those in MLS (except this year).
This last format also helped MLS in that it pooled the Mexican sides from the quarterfinal on, and maybe that's why I see an advantage to one minor change to what Freedman suggests. Here's those four steps in brief:
- No Longer Be Assured to Host Gold Cup
- Reserve a DP Slot for a American or Canadian
- Host the Club World Cup
- Win Something Now
His first step makes a ton of sense. His second, though, needs a tweak, partly due to US Labor Law, but partly because that change would help make MLS sides even better. If MLS were to add another DP slot for just Americans that would be legal, but to include Canadians as well treads over labor laws and NAFTA. What could be done though is to have that slot be open to any play from a NAFTA nation, which includes Mexico. Sure, that wouldn't add a lot of talent to the MLS pool, but it would add a few players who have experience playing and maybe winning in Mexico. This is a great step and one that is similar to what Japan and Australia do, and both are doing fairly well in the Asian Champions League with all 6 of their teams alive in the group stage with 2 matches still to play.
Hosting the Club World Cup just makes sense.
The last tournament only averaged 25,000 attendees (yes, it gets to 40k+ in Japan) and was at a time that made marketing to the two largest consumers of soccer via television difficult (North America, Europe). If the USA or Canada were to host the CWC this would increase the profile of the tournament, just because more people would be able to see it live on television. That of course is a positive.
But let's not pretend that an MLS side would get to face the CONMEBOL or UEFA's best in the tournament, since those teams usually enter in the semis. Sure, the Colorado Rapids would beat the OFC's best team. But would they really be able to beat the best team of Africa or Asia? The better Mexican sides (and Saprissa) that have made the tournament without the play-in round have won 5 of their 7 matchups in the quarters, never won a semi-final, and only won the third place match twice. This equals what the AFC has done, and barely edges CAF. Would it really raise the profile of MLS to pound an amateur team from New Zealand and then lose to Gamba Osaka or TP Mazembe?
Long term, this helps the tournament, and likely helps MLS, but short term it might expose the League as still lacking.
Freedman also talks about winning now
But he puts it in an American soccer context. More apt would be to put it in the context of the US Open Cup, Voyageurs Cup and Supporters' Shield. These trophies garner entry into the tourney, and as Salt Lake has proven a deep run in the CCL can capture the imaginations of more fans than typical within the local market. Their run led to increased TV ratings, extra ticket sales and more media coverage locally then anything but the MLS Cup '09 title.
More teams taking these supposedly secondary trophies seriously, would not just help them qualify for the CCL, but also help raise the profile of the trophies themselves. Jason Kreis has already stated that he is gunning for the US Open Cup to get back to the CCL. It is obvious that teams like DC United, the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers will take it seriously. The Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC are in the driver's seat for the Canadian Championship. A broad selection of teams competing at the continental level can only help the chances for a run.
These are simple steps, and while the first costs USSF money, the rest should in the end lead to greater incomes for USSF, MLS and SUM. More importantly to fans, they should lead to more runs like fans of Real Salt Lake got to enjoy this last year.