Let's overthink the CONCACAF Champions League

If it were up to me, I'd ditch the CONCACAF Champions League entirely, on the grounds that the irritations are all out of proportion with the rewards.  CONCACAF is a terrible confederation even by international soccer standards, and for decades Mexican clubs in particular were intelligent enough not to buy in to these overstuffed excuses to funnel money into Caribbean corner offices. 

That doesn't mean we need to accept the current format.  It's not sacred simply because it apes UEFA - the Champions League itself is a tedious, over-extended, bloated slog of its own.  Instructively, it becomes interesting again in the knockout stages.  If we must have a continental championship for the greater glory of the ghost of Chuck Blazer, let's spoil as few decent MLS domestic weekends for it as possible. 

What I would love, though, is one nation, one team.  And for us? That should be the winner of the US Open Cup.  There would be your overnight way to drum up interest in the venerable old tournament.  Want the glory of continental competition? Win the LHUSOC. Teams that de-prioritize the Open Cup - looking at you, Bruce Arena - would also be relieved of the fixture congestion that comes with the CCL.

Since I'm not likely to be elected King of CONCACAF anytime soon, I'll settle for a more realistic tournament.  We can certainly have fewer than three Caribbean teams, and a lot fewer than twelve from Central America.  Four teams is a hell of a lot, but Mexico has earned those spots.  I'd prefer two at the most - ideally, one, to be contested by the winners of their idiotic split season.  But since I also want MLS to have one spot each for Open Cup, MLS Cup and Shield, I can't with justice or sanity demand Mexico have fewer spots. 

Sadly, we seem to be stuck with the CONCACAF Champions League.  Something weird happened in the CONCACAF Champions League this year - people started showing up. Remember ten years ago when Joey Saputo was publicly lamenting how he couldn't get fans to show up to Impact games in the CCL, and how he might have been wrong about Montreal being a soccer town?  Oh, wait, that was actually two and a half months ago, sorry about that.  This month, of course, two separate former Olympic venues sold out to watch the heels of Liga MX against one of the ten best teams currently active in Canada.  For those of you just joining us, the Impact punched considerably above their weight and, while beaten, were not humiliated.

One of the underreported sports and cybersecurity stories of the decade occurred last week, by the way.  Those people we've been hearing from today?  Dozens of posters, Tweeters, bloggers and celebrities, who were of the opinion that MLS teams could never win the CCL again, and that single entity prevented MLS teams from ever truly competing?  Well, between the 1-1 draw at Azteca and the second half of the game at the Big O, every single of them were prevented from posting, Tweeting, blogging, or anything.  Was it a North Korean hack, or something?  I mean, that's a really widespread, but totally specific, target.  The really weird thing was, they were able to post about other things during that time.  But when it came to how MLS was a helpless kitten on the international stages? Nothing got through. 

If I were Alejandro Bedoya, or Taylor Twellman, I'd be really worried. I mean, the least of their worries is now, the two of them look like front-running, backseat-driving drips waiting until the result was safely recorded before saying they knew it all along. 

However, let us address their arguments, rather than their timing.  Their cowardly, weaselly, utterly gutless timing.

The premise is: if MLS teams wish to win the CONCACAF Champions League, their local businesses - er, clubs - will need deeper rosters of more adequately-compensated players.  This comes warm on the heels of reports that, for the first time in the history of mammals, a bunch of MLS players are earning more than every LigaMX player.  Which is weird, because Mexico pays in the top ten of wages in the world, while MLS hovers in the 20's.

Taylor Twellman tweeted charts that support the entirely believable premise that while the top tier of MLS Designated Players are being paid more, the average salary per team is less than in Mexico, and therefore most of the time you would expect a Mexican team to win the CCL.  Which has happened every year since the new format was introduced.  The solution is to raise the salaries of MLS rank and file players.

During the brief time left to us to care about the CONCACAF Champions League - I'm typing as fast I can here - let's address the questions this premise, and the proposed solution, raise.

However, to put Twellman's recommendations into perspective, he also tweeted that MLS winning the CONCACAF Champions League in its current structure was "99.9% impossible." 

That's one title every thousand years. 

A.  Do higher paid players win the CCL?

Well, obviously, the richest teams win the most titles.  That's why the two richest teams in North America, Chivas and Club America, have combined for one CCL title since 2008 - the one yesterday.  That's why the Montreal Impact, without even the Designated Player that gets MLS salaries theoretically close to those in Liga MX, were swept aside in the early rounds. 

Sadly, as tempting as it is to dismiss this as Soccernomics blithering, there's something to it. The two richest leagues in the region are Liga MX and MLS.  They have provided us with every CCL finalist since 2008.  And Mexican teams took twelve out of those fourteen spots. 

Sure, it's not a perfect predictor, but by and large, Goliath's gonna beat David. 

B. So if MLS players were paid more, would they win?

And now we have run headlong into what I think of as the Kelly Gray conundrum. Back in 2008 Kelly Gray was a Colorado Rapids player who, with 100% accuracy, wrote an article saying MLS players weren't being paid a heck of a lot.  The problem is, doubling Kelly Gray's salary would not have made Kelly Gray twice as good.  And a team willing to pay twice as much to fill Kelly Gray's role would probably spend it on someone better, if not twice as good, as Kelly Gray. 

Not one damn thing has changed.  The Impact are, for the foreseeable future, going to field a team of Americans and Canadians, just like the other nineteen and counting MLS teams.  And no one team is going to get every great American and Canadian player.  No one team in Mexico gets every great Mexican player, either. 

Look, here's the current list of Yanks Abroad.  The most significant names MLS is missing out on would require outbidding not just LigaMX, but in many cases teams in the Bundesliga and the Premiership.  Frankly, there aren't that many guys who would be worth getting into a bidding war over, and equally frankly, the more guys that play abroad, the more spots there will be for unproven, overlooked players in MLS.  We're better off with those guys staying abroad, and if the occasional ass-kicking at the hands of Club America is the price of a stronger national team pool, I for one am prepared to get over it.

That said...well, if MLS increased its roster sizes and the salary cap enough to either bring the Yanks Abroad list down to a few lines...or if a lot more teams signed a lot more DPs....then sure.  A deep team full of good players, even American ones, will make our chances in the CCL better. 

It's not a guarantee, of course, and not simply because Mexican teams are unlikely to just roll over and let us scratch their adorable little bellies.  This is CONCACAF we're talking about.  CONCACAF refs.  Making CONCACAF decisions.  We're asking for millions of dollars of investment to pay off, or go bust, at the whim of the kind of referees that every year we talk about hanging from parking meters.  It might take more money than just buying players, if you catch my drift.

C. Is winning the CCL worth the effort?

Fine, let's say it works.  No insanely suspicious refereeing decisions, no questionable cards, no offside goals counted, no onside goals disallowed.  In short, CONCACAF stops being CONCACAF.

So we win the CCL. 

Then what? 

So what?

The league sets up a hashtag.  The fans of the particular team in question ramp up the insufferable smugness beyond human tolerance.  (This is why I'm broken up Montreal didn't win - if someone has to wave a continental trophy over my head, for God's sake let them do it in a different country in a language I can barely follow from the very bottom of the table.  Can you imagine how much it will suck if Seattle ever wins this thing?) 

And....that's about it.

Let's say Montreal had won.  How big a bump would FC Dallas and San Jose have received?  Would the fans who refused to support Salt Lake because they lost their final now change their minds because the Impact won theirs?  Would trekking out to Bridgeview or Chester be any more rewarding?  Who, in short, would have been reached? 

Yes, I know people believe that the CCL would gain something called "respect."  You can't eat it, you can't wear it, and you can't sell it, but I've been assured repeatedly that if only MLS got "respect," that would have a tangible effect on the league in some undetermined way.

Let's assume that's the case for a second. Would winning the CCL get MLS respect?

Oh, you're not thinking like the sort of person looking to NOT give MLS respect.  There are Mexico fans who won't give the US respect, despite Jeonju.  If you think we're not roughly a billion times more likely to hear "So you won one.  It was a fluke.  Win eight in a row, like we have," then you and I have encountered very, very different opposition fans.

And that's nothing compared to European fans.  "Big deal, it was CONCACAF. It's a joke region."

Want to know how I know this?  Every Galaxy fan from 2000 knows.  Just like every DC United fan from 1998.  There is no pleasing some people.

Like those who won't count 1998 and 2000 because the format was different.  Like that was remotely the fault of either DC United or the Galaxy.  The UEFA Champions League is a different format than the European Cup, but no one is asking Real Madrid to return the trophies from the DiStefano era. 

In any case, even at the time, the continental title had zero, and I mean zero, effect on attendance.  Those of you who have been fans since 2001, or have read Beau Dure's "Long Range Goals," know that were it not for some extremely persuasive salesmanship on Don Garber's part, DC and LA would be remembered today as defunct former continental champions.  CONCACAF wasn't good enough to persuade fifteen years ago, and it's not going to be enough today.

Oh, but maybe the Club World Cup would convince them, some will say.  And the circle of life begins again.