Column

CONCACAF Chronicles: The CONCACAF Champions League is Major League Soccer kryptonite

Why MLS teams struggle to keep up, and why that might be okay.

Roger Martínez and Jakob Glesnes fight for the ball

“CONCACAF Chronicles” is a column by Sam Reno about North American soccer.

Philadelphia Union crashed out of the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League with a pair of 2-0 losses against Club América on Aug. 12 and Sept. 15, officially eliminating all MLS clubs from the competition once again.

As has been the case for each season of the Champions League, the winner will hail from Liga MX with Monterrey and Club América contesting the final on Oct. 27. A campaign that began with so much promise for the American league ended in dejection Wednesday night in Philadelphia.

To be fair to Philadelphia, the deck was stacked against them from the start. Club América is arguably the most successful club in North American soccer, and the Union were missing the very players who spearheaded their Champions League qualification effort in the first place.

Philadelphia earned one of the four US-based berths in the CCL by winning the 2020 MLS Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the team with the most points at the end of the regular season. They did so due in large part to the contributions of two MLS Best XI standouts: center back Mark McKenzie and midfielder Brenden Aaronson.

However, the pair both earned European transfers as a result, with McKenzie leaving for Genk in Belgium and Aaronson joining RB Salzburg in Austria. Without their two best players from the previous season, merely making a run to the semifinals is a remarkable achievement in and of itself.

Even with a disadvantaged Union side though, MLS found itself positioned better than ever to produce its first-ever CCL champion. Five of the eight quarterfinal teams were from MLS, and Columbus and Portland even scraped first-leg draws against the two eventual finalists in Monterrey and América, respectively.

Hope is often fleeting for U.S.-based fans in any competition beyond its borders, and this was no different. Disappointing second leg results saw just one — the bare minimum — MLS team through to the semifinals.

So how, for the 12 years since the change to the Champions League format, has no MLS side managed to break through?

For years, that answer was a simple one-word response: talent. Prior to 2020, only three MLS teams had even managed to make the final. Clubs in the U.S.-based league were simply not on the level of those from their neighbors to the south.

While that argument certainly still holds water today, MLS made two massive statements this summer, inarguably blurring the dividing line between the two leagues.

The first came when the United States, with a squad of nearly all MLS players, defeated Mexico in the Gold Cup Final. Twenty-four days later, the MLS All-Stars defeated the Liga MX All-Stars in the MLS All-Star Game. Sure, the match was just a friendly, but somebody had to win right?

As vindicating as that pair of results was for MLS, they really only prove that the best of MLS can go toe-to-toe with the best of Liga MX. While a massive step forward, the American league has yet to prove its talent pool is deep enough for its teams to succeed in a knockout-style competition.

Of course, MLS will continue struggling to stockpile domestic talent if, as described in the case of the Union, it routinely exports its brightest talents. Teams like Philadelphia have next to no chance if they are left to trudge on without the pillars of the teams that earned them their qualification.

In just the past year alone, Bryan Reynolds, Joe Scally, Gianluca Busio, Tanner Tessman, Daryl Dike and Caden Clark among others have joined McKenzie and Aaronson in making the European jump.

MLS operates outside of the inflated market that encapsulates the rest of North and South America. Players are often overvalued by the clubs within it, forcing them to demand fees many European clubs are unwilling to pay.

As a result, much of that top talent remains in Mexico. Clubs can not afford to buy players at Central and South American prices and turn around and sell them for European market value.

More and more European clubs have recognized the massive untapped reservoir that is MLS. Since the league’s player valuations are similar to those competing across the pond, young talents are able to test themselves in the best leagues in the world in exponentially growing numbers.

So if growing talent exportation is handcuffing MLS teams’ prospects in the Champions League, who cares?

Seriously.

If it continues to produce and provide opportunities for globally recognized prospects, then MLS has no reason to overly concern itself with success in continental-wide competitions.

The highest level of the sport is played in Europe, and becoming a consistent supplier of talent to the continent will only attract more young players hoping to do the same. MLS alumni thriving with the biggest clubs in the world provides legitimacy and a reason to fund the developmental system in the United States.

It is certainly disheartening for supporters to see their clubs continually come up short in the only competitive measuring stick between North America’s two biggest leagues. But as global cooperation continues to increase in soccer, successfully operating within its largest market is a superior objective to chasing success in a regional knockout competition.

“CONCACAF Chronicles” runs every Tuesday.