Those of you who follow MLS know how really wild it can get at times (#MLSAfterDark anyone?). Those of you who follow the USMNT know how rough and bruising CONCACAF can be. Now imagine you have a competition that takes the craziest, most crunching-tackle-that-only-leads-to-a-yellow-card-at-best parts of MLS and CONCACAF and combines them into one tournament that at any given moment can go completely off-the-rails. And that is what we call the CONCACAF Champions’ League (CCL).
MLS has always fallen painfully short in CCL, a competition absolutely dominated by Liga MX. Of the twenty-four teams to have played in the final of the current form of the contest since 2008, TWENTY have been Mexican teams, which includes all twelve winners. Only Los Angeles FC, Toronto, Montreal Impact, and Real Salt Lake have finished as runners-up (though DC United and LA Galaxy each won the previous iteration of the tournament called the Champions’ Cup in 1998 and 2000 respectively, so shouts out to them). A variety of factors contribute to the inability of MLS to close the deal in the CCL, chief among them that MLS teams are in pre-season when it takes place, in contrast to Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean leagues often being in full swing. It’s not easy trying to get to full match fitness in the hot, muggy, sometimes high-elevation conditions of away games in CONCACAF, not to mention the extremely hostile crowds, though the fall dates for the semis and the finals could be a favorable twist this year. We can also point to the gap in spending and perceived quality between Liga MX and MLS (how big the gap in quality really is remains up for debate).
THAT BEING SAID, this does not stop the MLS fans from beginning another year with a (albeit somewhat jaded) sense of hope that this could be THE year it finally happens. The year an MLS team could finally win the CONCACAF Champions’ League. This time around is no different, and results have been promising so far! The five MLS teams in this year’s contest (Atlanta, Philly, Portland, Toronto, and Columbus) went undefeated in both legs of the first round, leading to Liga MX matchups in the quarterfinals for all but Atlanta and Philly, who play each other (guaranteed MLS spot in the semifinals, let’s gooo). Five MLS teams have never made it to the quarterfinals before. Ever. But what’s exciting about this is not just advancing to the next round. It’s that, at times, several of the MLS teams thoroughly dominated their opponents. Portland and Philly certainly didn’t let anyone question who would be advancing late into their second leg, after highly contested first matches. And Columbus left no room for doubt right out of the gate on night one.
That’s not to say there weren’t moments of CONCACAF-y craziness and heart-stopping moments of extreme anxiety for those watching (had to catch my breath a little after Toronto leaving things a bit too close late in the game against defending Liga MX champion side Leon). Several yellow cards were awarded after studs-straight-to-the-ankle tackles that certainly should’ve resulted in a card of a much darker shade. After Philly’s first leg against Costa Rican side Deportivo Saprissa, it was announced that the referee for the game would not be officiating further in the competition following a red card tackle that resulted in only a yellow and led to a bit of a brawl. Somehow this was followed by a very similar tackle and yellow card result in the second leg; go figure.
The best thing about MLS and CONCACAF, though we sometimes love to hate it, is the unpredictability that makes it so much fun. We don’t watch CCL for pristine soccer. We watch for the drama and the mess, the heart-stopping anxiety, and the equal chance that the game will end in jubilation or despair as we wait (somewhat impatiently) for MLS to assert itself as the dominant league in the region that we want it to be. We watch because we still hold out hope that one day an MLS team will emerge when the smoke (or rather the humidity) clears as CCL champions (wow, I can’t even describe how much I really hope it’s this year). A title wouldn’t mean that MLS has arrived as THE dominant league in the region, but it’s a big step in the right direction. That first win will be historic. When that finally happens, it’s going to be incredible. And if you haven’t been watching, it’s way past time for you to catch that #CCLFever.