The CONCACAF Champions League isn't the measuring stick for MLS everyone seems to think it is

Leander Schaerlaeckens
·4 min read

From afar, the handwringing over the fortunes of Major League Soccer teams in the CONCACAF Champions League is incomprehensible.

For years now, MLS fans and observers have lamented the league’s failures in the regional club competition, which crowns a champion for North and Central America and the Caribbean. Since the format was changed in 2008, only four MLS teams have reached the final – Real Salt Lake in 2011, the Montreal Impact in 2015, Toronto FC in 2018 and LAFC this year.

All have lost. Mexican teams always got in the way eventually. It took endless attempts for an MLS team to even knock out a counterpart from Liga MX.

Finally winning the CONCACAF Champions League, it was MLS’ white whale. It would mark its arrival; cement its ascent.

But see it for what it really is and this makes little sense. Even in a regular year, the CCL is a competition that largely goes unnoticed, even by MLS fans. On Tuesday, the final was shunted to the little-watched FOX Sports 2 and programmed opposite the NBA’s opening night, in competition with the marquee Lakers-Clippers matchup.

Adding to the oddity, the CCL had been abandoned, like everything else, in March but wasn’t resumed until nine months later, in a bubble in Orlando. Still, the insistence on its importance persisted.

Carlos Vela (right) and LAFC didn't become the first MLS team in 20 years to win the continental Champions League. So what? (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Carlos Vela (right) and LAFC didn't become the first MLS team in 20 years to win the continental Champions League. So what? (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

LAFC knocked out three Mexican teams on its way to this season’s final – overcoming deficits in all three rounds and eliminating mighty Club America in an ugly semifinal on Saturday, when it went down a man on a headbutt that never happened – to become the fourth MLS team in the final. But in the title game against yet another Mexican team, Tigres, it squandered a lead in the second half, losing 2-1 and prolonging the curse of MLS in the CCL, or whatever you want to call it.

Before the game, excitement had been building that this could finally be the year. LAFC might represent a sea change, figuring out the solution to playing Mexican teams at last.

“Winning CONCACAF Champions League from an MLS perspective matters because it is seen by many as this litmus test that is to be used when judging quality and the hierarchy that exists for teams and leagues in CONCACAF,” FOX Sports commentator Alexi Lalas said on his “State of the Union” podcast. “This is a checked box that has remained unchecked for a long time but it is a necessary check. It’s one less weakness for a lot of other people to point to and one more hurdle that is cleared in this ongoing quest for credibility and relevance.”

The box was not checked. The hurdle remains uncleared.

It doesn’t entirely matter.

Firstly, the whole thing feels arbitrary when you consider that DC United won the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup (before it was renamed and expanded) in 1998 and the LA Galaxy did so in 2000. These are trophies that even the league itself ignores.

But if winning the regional championship is supposed to be a milestone in the league’s development, does that suggest that it got worse after those two titles in three years? Even suggesting as much would be absurd, given the enormous growth in the interceding years. It’s all a very strange way of measuring progress.

Especially when homegrown prospects like Caden Clark of the New York Red Bulls and the Philadelphia Union’s Brenden Aaronson are coveted by some of Europe’s biggest clubs.

Or when Alphonso Davies of Bayern Munich, Weston McKennie of Juventus, Tyler Adams of RB Leipzig, Gio Reyna of Borussia Dortmund – products of the Vancouver Whitecaps, FC Dallas, Red Bulls and NYCFC academies, respectively – are developing into some of the brightest young players in Europe.

Or when numbers that matter like attendance and TV ratings show sustainable, long-term growth before the pandemic hit.

Ultimately, it doesn’t particularly matter where MLS stands relative to Liga MX. Not when it is capable of luring Mexican stars, like LAFC sensation Carlos Vela or Galaxy bust Javier Hernandez, rather than seeing them go home. Liga MX is an unusual and insular league, typically beset by chaos, that defies comparison anyway.

It isn’t a useful exercise.

How MLS teams fare in elimination tournaments, in knockout games that tend to take place outside of the MLS season with bad refereeing and all manner of gamesmanship and shenanigans, just doesn’t feel particularly germane to the larger evolutionary arc of the 25-year-old league. It’s a crapshoot, not a metric. MLS plainly growing and young players are finding an eager market overseas for their talent. Those are the things that matter.

Especially when MLS has actually conquered the region twice already.

So LAFC might have put an end to the futility. But it wouldn’t have proven anything. Not really. The trajectory of MLS is unaffected by a late winner from Andre-Pierre Gignac in an empty stadium in Orlando.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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