After Real Salt Lake's run to the CONCACAF Champions League final last season, and the first-ever wins by MLS teams in Mexico this season, there was a lot of misplaced optimism about the chances of Major League Soccer teams to contend for the CCL. That optimism was swiftly dispatched by Mexican clubs in the knockout stages. Jeff Carlisle wrote a column on ESPN Soccernet inquiring if MLS clubs were doomed to second-tier status against Mexican sides in the competition. I don't believe that they are, but it takes a special team with a combination of depth, maturity, and good fortune to be competitive in the competition.
I can't be surprised at the performance of the MLS representatives in this season's competition. Colorado Rapids and Toronto FC were never going to be contenders, and FC Dallas had injury concerns that limited their ceiling in the CCL. Seattle Sounders had the talent but needed bolstering on defense. Los Angeles Galaxy had the one side that appeared to be a legitimate contender for the CCL. My only question about the Galaxy was whether they really cared about the competition.
MLS did score a major achievement by placing three representatives (two from USA, one from Canada) in the knockout stages, one of which finished in first place in their group. But Seattle could have and should have finished first in Group D, and their home loss to Herediano was ultimately damaging to their prospects in the competition. And what a lot of people forget when trumpeting away wins in Mexico is that Mexican clubs have never lost a single elimination tie against a non-Mexican club. That's zero over the history of the Champions League, in ties in which Mexican clubs are compelled to play their first-choice players. Defeating a Mexican team in a group stage match is a good thing; defeating them over 180 minutes in a winner-take-all series is a much different proposition and is a situation that MLS players rarely experience over their careers. Hérculez Gómez alluded to that as he observed the Toronto players in the semifinal tie versus Santos.
The fact is that Major League Soccer teams are built to be successful in Major League Soccer, not the Champions League. One could claim that a team built for Champions League success should be successful in MLS, but considering a competition that generates little revenue and prize money it only makes sense that general managers focus on MLS. The amount of money that teams have to spend limit the type of talent available; it will only increase as teams generate more revenue sources but Mexican clubs will always be in a position to outbid them. (Not only do Mexican clubs have the largest payrolls in North American soccer, they have larger payrolls than most teams in South American soccer as well.) Preparation and scheduling are important, which MLS has identified as a priority and promised to implement two years ago. Yet LA Galaxy played a league match -- and not an easy one at that! -- three days before the second leg of their quarterfinal match against Toronto FC.
Next season's representatives at first glance appear to be more competitive than last season's, but it's possible that the one team capable of repeating Real Salt Lake's achievement is Real Salt Lake.