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One theory for MLS failures in Champions League

Apr 10, 2013, 10:45 AM EDT

CONCACAF Santos Laguna Sounders Soccer

A few years ago I wrote critically and frequently about Major League Soccer’s chief flaw on the field. That is, the faulty element most guilty of holding back the league from achieving better quality between the white lines (i.e., MLS imperfection on the field, not in marketing matters).

It was simply that too many matches didn’t matter. When 80 percent or 60 percent of teams make the playoffs (MLS first decade or so), every single match simply was not important enough. That tolerance for imperfection infected everything, from daily practices to match-day management. Mistakes weren’t punished sufficiently, so the drive to improve individually and collectively suffered.

It’s gotten better, of course, but the math still works in opposition to genuine, night-in, night-out, down and dirty competitiveness. Simply put, each individual match does not drip with the weight of importance as it should.

Making the playoffs is still the brick and mortar of Major League Soccer from a competitive standpoint. And more than half the teams still qualify (10 of 19). So there is still not enough “gotta have it” for each contest.

The basic league structure is just too forgiving in terms of individual match importance; too many contests cannot be earnestly stamped “Code Red Critical!”

When MLS teams get themselves into Champions League seriousness, they aren’t quite equipped to deal tactically, emotionally or intelligently when it comes to one match (or a pair of them) that simply must be had.

We saw it twice last week, as Seattle couldn’t properly manage a home match against Santos Laguna. Left in a 1-0 hole, last night’s 1-1 draw in Mexico was insufficient.  Santos advances into the CONCACAF Champions League final; MLS misses another chance.

The LA Galaxy conceded two goals late against Monterrey, and the chances of something heroic tonight in Mexico do not look good. At all.

Quality depth in the rosters (better on the Mexican side) has a lot to say about this ongoing imbalance, as Mexican sides continue to dominate the regional tourney.

But the lenient playoff qualification standards still hinder MLS progress. We saw it last year as clubs that finished fourth and fifth in their conferences made the MLS Cup final. LA was about as bad it could be in March, April and May … and still won the championship.

When a smaller percentage still of Major League Soccer teams make the playoffs, every match will ring the bell of importance. Organizations and individuals will know that a match in April, May, June, etc. should carry all the serious weight of a stretch-run contest in September. Only then will the best practices of approaching a match and managing out matches become muscle memory for MLS players, coaches and clubs.

Until then, well, we’ll just have to enjoy a few more all-Liga MX CONCACAF Champions League finals.

  1. calebeaster - Apr 10, 2013 at 11:23 AM

    While I will agree that the competition format in MLS needs a lot of work, it’s hard to believe that teams don’t learn from being in multiple tournaments a year. Between the US Open Cup and CCL, there’s plenty of exposure to big games with lot’s of pressure. Add to that the post season tournament that most major soccer leagues don’t even have, you might argue MLS teams should be more ready for the weight of must win games.

    There should definitely be more at stake on a weekly basis in MLS, but you can’t have an MLS Cup tournament, and a Supporters Shield race that have equal weight. At least not as it stands now. Going back to the drawing board as far as formatting seems unlikely in the near future, as the decisions made about the post season seem to be moving in the wrong direction.

  2. charliej11 - Apr 10, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    Why do these theories never come up for Manchester United ? Their games have barely mattered since Christmas and they were out in the round of 16.

    No one says one thing. But with MLS ? An unbelievably competitive league ?
    Oh yeah that must be it.

    Just a bunch of morons that don’t like playoffs trying unsuccessfully to prove their point that playoffs are evil.

    The opposite is actually true. The Euro stars struggle over here because it is week in and week out so tough to win. No games off like the Euro leagues. No 8-0 scores, where you sleep walk through most of the game.

    • Dan - Apr 10, 2013 at 12:00 PM

      In short: Lack of quality depth. It is what separates the average clubs from those above average and the above average clubs from the great ones.

    • scoocha - Apr 10, 2013 at 4:01 PM

      I think a phony Red Card had a lot to do with them losing in the Round of 16. Plus, they lost to Real Madrid not some low-level Russian side for example.

  3. udosean - Apr 10, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    I was thinking this exact same thing. Week in week out MLS matches lack any importance. I do not subscribe to the whole “we need to raise the salary cap to compete with Mexican clubs” theory. Yes, in the long term that is true, but I honestly think that an increased salary cap would not have helped last night or tonight either. Even the pressure Seattle is facing in MLS is relatively mild because we all know they will get into the playoffs.

    With 10 teams getting into the playoffs and no pressure of relegation at the other end of the table, it leaves the first 2/3 of the season relatively pointless. Unfortunately that is the way it is going to be for the foreseeable future unless MLS adopts a 6 team playoff format (Conference champs get bye to conference finals, 2nd and 3rd place two legged home and away….jus sayin).

    I personally would like to see something happen at the other end of the table. With no relegation how to you convince bottom feeder clubs not to finish last place. Any ideas?

  4. takethelongview - Apr 10, 2013 at 11:34 AM

    I would start by giving the CCL berth to the two regular season conference winners. It seems to me that finishing first over a full season is a more impressive achievement than being runner-up in a three round tournament. MLS Cup winner and Supporters Shield winners would still qualify but give the slot now allotted to the runner up to the other regular season champ.

    Remember how clustered the Eastern Conference teams were last October? Imagine the intensity of matches featuring the five or so teams who had a shot at first in September and October if they jockeyed not only for playoff positioning but also a CCL berth. In last year’s example, the dogfight would have continued even after SKC assumed pole position because they had already qualified.

    Scoreboard watching could become as important an autumnal rite in soccer as it is in baseball, leading more fans to follow the out-of-town matches featuring their club’s rivals. True, some years a conference champ will outdistance the pack, as San Jose did in last year’s West, but isn’t thhe trade-off worth it?

    • charliej11 - Apr 10, 2013 at 11:43 AM

      No, not worth the trade off, last year would have been very boring, just like the Euro leagues are currently. As it turned out, it was beyond exciting.

  5. socamr - Apr 10, 2013 at 11:54 AM

    I agree that week in, week out MLS matches don’t matter as much as they could, but to blame Seattle’s failure to advance on that element is a little short of ridiculous. Seattle has been in the CCL for three years running, has been in the MLS playoffs every year, and has played in 4 straight US Open Cup finals, a tournament where a single loss eliminates you. Seattle may have issues managing two-game series, but to blame last night’s loss on MLS scheduling suggests someone looking for an easy explanation without actually doing any hard thinking.

    • takethelongview - Apr 10, 2013 at 1:27 PM

      This comment succeeds in persuading me that the original Davis argument may apply to Seattle less effectively than other MLS teams, and we might add the Galaxy in as well. But Despite last night’s game providing impetus for the original post, I believe he meant the argument to apply to the league more broadly given the repeated MLS failings on the big stage. It was not, primarily, a comment on Seattle’s preparation evn if a Sounders loss prompted the post.

      And it does seem worth considering to speculate that even battle-tested Seattle might have fared better if more league games matched the do -or-die intensity of all those meaningul elimination games Seattle got itself in position to play. Especially for those reserve players pressed into the elimination game who may not have featured in all those meaningful games you cited. The more high pressure games the better was the gist of the original post.

  6. zoophagous - Apr 10, 2013 at 11:58 AM

    I agree with the basic premise.

    I am a Sounder fan and the truth is my team is at the bottom of the table. But even so I am confident they will make the playoffs and a run at the MLS Cup. They have started the season slowly due to injuries and late acquisitions. To the author’s point – these matches the Sounders have dropped don’t really matter. The team knows it, the fans know it.

    Having said that I do believe that MLS is improving in CCL play. What the author doesn’t say is that international play is different from league play. It takes time to figure it out. It took the Sounders 3 seasons in the CCL. They lost to a top flight Mexican team by 1 goal in aggregate. While disappointing hardly shameful or embarrassing.

    I think SKC will see some growing pains in CCL this coming year. Not a knock on SKC, it’s just that there is a learning curve. The refs are different. The pitches are a challenge. The travel is exponentially worse. It takes time to figure out the best ways to deal with these.

    I expect an MLS team to win CCL within the next 5 years.

  7. tylerbetts - Apr 10, 2013 at 11:59 AM

    This COULD be part of the issue. But I don’t think it’s worth overplaying this card. There are more important issues. After all, Real Madrid and Barca don’t play too many uber-important league games (if we’re being honest), and they do just find in UCL. And, 8/18 make the playoffs in Liga MX compared to 10/19 in MLS. Is that difference all that big? Especially when there are two sets of playoffs each year in Liga MX?

    The second biggest issue is the salary cap. Yes. It is. I-XI, can the best in MLS compete with the best in Liga MX? Probably. Almost certainly. XII-XXIII? Not so much. That lack of depth makes fixture congestion, injuries, and other priorities (see below) a huge issue for MLS teams trying to compete against Liga MX teams.

    However … the biggest problem is priorities. Steve, you said it yourself, The #1 goal for every MLS team is making the MLS Cup playoffs. CCL success is a “nice to have” or a “nice extra” but in no way is it anyone’s priority. Moreover, CCL success might do more to prevent success in MLS than to encourage it or enhance a team’s chances for MLS success.

    Take this year’s teams. Say Seattle had found a way to a second goal last night, knocked out Santos, and then somehow won the title. What would most MLS and Sounders fans say about this season if they also finished 7th in the West and failed to make the MLS Cup playoffs? The season was a failure. Take that a step further. What if, in winning CCL, Eddie Johnson took a bad tackle, broke his leg, and was lost for the season, and that loss of scoring power is what kept Sounders from making a run at MLS Cup? Was it worth it?

    The league currently, and correctly, rewards teams with league success who qualify for CCL to help them do better in CCL. The league also needs to turn that around and help those who do well in CCL get some advantages back in league. Make it worth your time and effort to do well in CCL, and you’ll see more teams make it a priority. Make it so that doing well in CCL helps you achieve your MLS goals.

    You just need to fight the right incentives. Maybe offer extra allocation money for teams that get out of the group stage. And even more allocation money when you survive a knockout round. Maybe allow teams who advance to the knockout stage to go to the top of the order for player allocation, so that when a big name is entering the league, those doing well have top crack at them? Maybe offer a 4th DP spot to any team that wins the whole things?

    Each of those incentives are great. Because they not only help with the depth issues, but they also help with the priority issue. Even though it doesn’t make CCL the #1 priority, doing well in CCL helps you get to your #1 priority – winning MLS Cup.

  8. drewvt6 - Apr 10, 2013 at 12:07 PM

    Let’s say for the sake of argument, they double the salary cap in MLS. Without removing the foreigner restrictions for rosters, do we really see a roster depth improvement? As in, are there enough Americans/green-card holders/Canadians to add quality to positions 12-20 on 20 MLS rosters? Is a doubled salary cap enough to get the Edu’s, Goodson’s and Parkhursts back to MLS? What about the Mexican based contingent: Beasely, Torres, Garza, Corona, Castillo, Orozco, Gomez, etc?

    I don’t know that you build that quality of depth simply by throwing more money at it. I think it takes time and in increase in quality at all levels of the game in the US and Canada.

  9. dfstell - Apr 10, 2013 at 12:30 PM

    I’m totally not a fan of MLS’s playoff structure. I’m one of those guys who would like to see a single table, balanced schedule and no playoffs along with some kind of relegation system.

    But….I don’t think the middling importance of MLS’s regular season games is the problem here. Tournament soccer is just really unpredictable. Overall, the better teams should win, but we all know that weirdness can happen.

    I think the main problem the MLS clubs have is that they’re just not as good as the elite Mexican teams. Santos is probably a better team 1 – 11 than Seattle. Monterrey is probably a better team 1-11 than LAG. That doesn’t mean that MLS teams suck…..its just that they’d be 4th place teams in Liga MX.

    The solution is simple: MONEY. You have to spend more. You have to raise the salary cap. You may have to allow more international player slots since it isnt’ clear that there is a big enough American talent pool.

    And….doing something about the schedule would help. Sometimes MLS clubs are eliminated before they have the preseason rust knocked off.

    • Steve Davis - Apr 10, 2013 at 1:25 PM

      Clearly, money is part of it … as so many have pointed out. That’s connected to depth of rosters, which I pointed out.

      I just think that matches matter more in Mexico. There is pressure on every one; it’s the cultural element that we always talk about. It’s Jurgen Klinsmann’s “Bakery” theory … that players who lose in other lands don’t want to show up at the bakery the next day, because they are going to freakin’ hear about it from the local baker!

      So, when MLS team DO get into the money matches, they just miss a little. Not much, perhaps, but they cannot quite match the big-match experience that says “Every ball is important. Every decision matters. Every chance near goal is pure gold.” Etc.

      • charliej11 - Apr 10, 2013 at 2:49 PM

        And the reason that Santos played so badly ? The Sounders had space everywhere and able to create ( but not finish ) many opportunities.
        I guess the same huh ? Mexico has playoffs. Plus they have less parity than MLS.

        Barca is 13 points up with 8 games left. MLS games are sooooo much more meaningful than that.
        Just typical American soccer hatred garbage. You know that Chelsea was not trying to win the Club World Cup game correct ?

      • jpan007 - Apr 11, 2013 at 12:04 AM

        well. it’s just your job (media job) to be more critical of their perfomance

  10. SD1 Timbers Special Forces - Apr 10, 2013 at 2:49 PM

    I do not believe that ANY team in MLS takes any game for granted. In a league with the parity they have, every point matters no matter WHEN they get it. Did the Timbers not play hard as hell to get there first win? Did New York half-ass it in Chicago so they could be embarrassed? Where’s the evidence for the belief that games don’t matter? How could an organization that knows that every point matters not be driven to get as many as soon as possible? I can’t imagine a professional not taking seriously every game they play in. Starting players are under intense pressure to produce in every game, not just those in the fall. That seems to me to be a “feeling” not a fact. Ask John Spencer if games early in the season don’t matter.

    And what is the incentive once your mathematically eliminated from the playoffs? Almost nothing? So wouldn’t the games in the beginning of the season be the most important?

    It seems that too many Soccer fans have grown up watching European leagues and their structure of predictability. That is the most boring idea ever. Seriously. Boring. Not to mention just dumb.

    Two points made by Charlie about Man U and Tyler about MX playoffs.

    Man U’s games don’t mean anything to anyone. How important are their games now?

    MX teams fight for playoffs and just under half make it. Why does it work for them but not MLS?

    It seems to me that old way to motivate teams is through punishment. I prefer MLS’s rewarding teams, not punishing them.

    I have no doubt that MLS will be the best league in the world in 10 years because of the playoff system. They don’t have the money right now but we are the most sophisticated sports audience in the world who demand the absolute best. Don’t blame the playoff system for Sigi’s poor tactics or lack of money and talent. Those MX teams spend 10X what an MLS teams does. It makes a difference, obviously. When MLS teams are spending 20 million on salaries, let’s see how well they do. Until then, the playoff system only helps to keep competition high AND every game count.

    To the suggestion that we give even more money to teams that do well, will only give big market teams advantages over poorly attended teams that need help to become profitable. Until the lowest, weakest teams can make money and get ratings, the league as a whole is still weak.

    We can do better than the old dogmatic leagues and traditions of “Old Football”. We’re leaders not followers, or at least some of us are.

    • scoocha - Apr 10, 2013 at 4:05 PM

      Don’t quit your day job and don’t put your house on the line with that prediction.

      It’s unfortunate that MLS has to follow the NBA/NHL model instead of the EPL/Euro model of less teams making the playoffs/Cup tournaments. All it does is devalue the regular season.

      • SD1 Timbers Special Forces - Apr 10, 2013 at 5:03 PM

        How do playoffs make any game, most especially those early in the season, devalued? How devalued were the games that got Spencer fired? How devalued are the games that would get you the earliest playoff spot possible?

        The playoff actually rewards early success by getting seeded first. How does that devalue the regular season? Because LA won the cup being the last seeded team?

        Don’t forget the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls weren’t always the first place team in the regular season and no one talks about how crappy the playoffs were because of that. They had to earn it. And it’s legendary because of it, not in spite of it.

        We are the best sports fans in the world, the US is the highest consumers of sports. Not just soccer or rugby or baseball. All sports. Wouldn’t our system of getting the most attention, talent and money be an example to follow?

        What do you think the Champions League is? It’s a playoff system!

  11. brad9000 - Apr 10, 2013 at 3:11 PM

    Mexican teams are better than MLS teams. That is why they win. Period. It has nothing to do with the schedule or playoff system (which I hate, but thats a different story). The better team wins. If anything, having so many teams in the playoffs would help MLS teams because more of them have the experience of having to “turn it on” in a playoff situation. The MLS is improving steadily. Maybe too slowly for some, but steadily. I for one think they’ll get to the point of ccl success but it will take more time.

  12. talgrath - Apr 10, 2013 at 5:07 PM

    No no no. The reason MLS teams don’t tend to do as well as their Mexican counterparts in the CCL is simple: money. Top Liga MX teams have salary pools much larger, often 3-4 times larger than MLS clubs. In all honesty, it is hugely impressive that MLS teams do as well as they do in the CCL, as long as MLS is far behind in money and international influence compared to MLS an MLS team winning the overall series in the CCL against a Liga MX team will be a rarity.

  13. joeyt360 - Apr 10, 2013 at 5:34 PM

    None of these ‘theories’ hold any water. Mexican teams win these things because they are. . . wait for it. . . BETTER. They’re better because they have more talent. They have more talent because they pay more and also because they have better development. Anything else is a grasp.

  14. udosean - Apr 10, 2013 at 8:34 PM

    I believe a lot of your are missing the point. Mr. Davis is trying to touch on a topic that can be difficult to explain, but is very easy to understand. Of course every MLS match counts, of course the players try their hardest to represent themselves and the club. Whats missing is that element of pressure that only comes when EVERYONE is watching. The pressure that comes when newspapers, pundits, and your local mailman are going to question why you were even allowed to step on the field last match. The pressure that comes when you KNOW that dropping points at Chicago and Columbus can be the difference between getting in to the playoffs. The pressure that comes when you know your manager WILL get sacked if he doesnt reach the post season. The pressure that comes when missing out on a champions league spot may cause you to lose potential signings.

    A lot of these things will come with time organically as the sport continues to take hold in the US. BUT a lot of this pressure can be manufactured by MLS HQ by creating more incentive to winning the supporters shield and by cutting the playoff field in half. Unfortunately there really can be nothing done with the other end of the table, but making the supporters shield more prestigious and playoff spots more exclusive would be a step in the right direction.

  15. ramseyjudah - Apr 11, 2013 at 12:01 PM

    This article hasn’t even hit the meat of it yet. The reason why the MLS sucks is not because of the playoffs, it’s because of the entire football structure that is the MLS. When a new season starts, there is one thing that puts fire under the asses of every single coach, player, and executive: relegation. Big teams rarely have to worry about that anymore, but the smaller-budgeted teams (of which is probably at least 60%) fear it so much that every single game would affect their budgets and their future careers.

    The MLS doesn’t have that worry. A team could lose it’s first 10 games and then decide to coast on losses the rest of the season to get a first round pick of some academy-taught college player who doesn’t have a worry in the world. The concept of relegation allows for two things: 1) a new brand of competition and 2) more talent.

    The best soccer doesn’t come from academy-taught college players, it comes from the streets. In order to harness that talent, the sport needs to begin allowing the street to play. Having a second lower league will allow recruitment of players who can be discovered bringing more talent to the league. There needs to also be open tourneys like the FA Cup that will give teams everywhere the opportunity to showcase talented players and coaching that can be later infused into the bigger teams.

    The MLS is putting a choke-hold on the beautiful game by following the same system as any other American sport. It doesn’t work like that and never will. If the US and the MLS want to compete with the world they need to structure their system like the rest of the world does. Otherwise, we’re just going to have the same boring teams doing the same boring things and fanbases will not move up the way they should. It’s embarrassing. We have 300 million people in this country and cannot have an exciting sport like soccer be exciting.

    • knowyrproduct - Apr 14, 2013 at 2:40 PM

      When you say we need an FA Cup tournament, it shows your ignorance of the 100 year old US Open Cup, which scuppers your whole argument.

  16. zava55 - Apr 23, 2013 at 5:52 PM

    Great opinion. I hope this message is read by the author. As a soccer fan I have to say that I am guilty of not caring for most MLS games until the end of the season and for the playoffs for all the reasons you mentioned about season games not mattering as much.
    I have a bizarre idea: MLS not having playoffs! Even without promotion and relegation I think this can work. It can only work if fans buy into the idea that the goal of a season is to qualify to the Champions League. And if people still want a domestic playoffs with elimination games, just have the top 8 US MLS teams qualify directly to the Round of 16 of the US Open cup. The major problem with this idea of mine is we are talking about three different entities that each have their own goals of making their own money by promoting their own product: MLS, USSF, and CONCACAF. CONCACAF takes most of the cut of money for TV rights and stadium attendance for CCL, so MLS and USSF don’t have an interest in fully promoting another’s tournament over their own. The same goes for the US Open Cup/USSF and MLS/Playoffs. There are mutual benifits in MLS doing well in these other competitions such as US dominance and a spot in the CCL in the case of the US Open, and world exposure and a ticket to the FIFA Club world Cup in the case of the CCL.

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