Seth Vertelney: For better or worse, it's slow and steady for MLS in the CONCACAF Champions League

The league's slow-growth model has manifested itself in the CCL, with increasingly improved performances still not quite enough to overcome top Mexican opposition.
Another year of CONCACAF Champions League down, and all MLS has to show for it, again, is a clutch of moral victories.

After the Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy were vanquished by Mexican opposition in the semifinals, that elusive CCL title is still peeking just over the horizon, escaping the grasp of every team in the region except those that reside in Liga MX.

Observers of Major League Soccer will be familiar with the slow-growth ethos which has perpetuated the league since its inception. Once again, for better or worse, this will have to be a case where slow and steady is the order of the day. 

“The league set a goal a few years ago to win the CONCACAF Champions League and on a yearly basis have at least one team in the final and two teams or more in the semifinals,” MLS executive vice president Nelson Rodriguez told “While we recognize the progress we've made against that objective in the last five years, it still remains a disappointment not to achieve it."

Though it has still fallen short of its stated goal, the league is certainly trending in the right direction in the CCL. The 2012-13 edition is the fifth season for the CCL in its current format and a cursory glance at past results reveals positive momentum for MLS.

The league suffered embarrassing setbacks in the preliminary rounds of the 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11 editions of the tournament, including (but not limited to) New England falling 6-1 on aggregate to Trinidad and Tobago's Joe Public, the New York Red Bulls being eliminated by another Trinidadian team, W Connection, and the Galaxy getting bounced by the second-tier Puerto Rico Islanders.

In the first two seasons of the CCL's current format, one MLS team advanced to the quarterfinal each year, where it was eliminated by Mexican opposition (Atlante beat Houston in 2008-09 and Toluca beat Columbus the following season).

In the next three season, MLS teams began to improve, starting with Real Salt Lake's run to the final in 2010-11, which ended with a heartbreaking one-goal aggregate loss to Monterrey.

Last season saw the milestone of three MLS sides in the quarterfinals for the first time, as Toronto FC defeated the Galaxy to become the only MLS team in the semifinals, where it was summarily dismissed by Santos Laguna.

This year's edition contained a pair of notable firsts: For the first time, two MLS sides advanced to the semifinals and Seattle, in doing so, became the first MLS side to knock out a Mexican side (Tigres) over a two-leg series.

Still, in each season, MLS has run up against the brick wall known as Liga MX. Since the CCL changed to its current format, MLS is 9-27-8 in games against Mexican teams, including knockout round games.

“We have a vision that by 2022 we want MLS to be amongst the best leagues in the world,” Rodriguez said. “Somewhere in the path to that vision, we have to establish ourselves as the best league in our region.”

That is a daunting task to say the least. Without a salary cap like MLS, Liga MX, featuring several teams owned by free-spending moguls, has a major advantage when it comes to stockpiling talent.

“We make about eight to nine million dollars [as a team]; they make 25 to 30, so it’s difficult,” Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan said after being eliminated by two-time defending champion Monterrey.

“Football is like that. When Manchester United plays Wigan, it’s different and it will always be like that until we start spending money and buying players like Aldo [De Nigris], like Humberto [Suazo] and players like that,” Donovan added.

Rodriguez, though, believes the reason for Mexico's dominance isn't quite as cut and dry.

“I respect that that's how Landon sees it, but no, I don't agree,” he said. “I think it's generally too simplistic to just look at salary figures.”

In addition to financial reasons, Rodriguez pointed to a number of other factors which currently separate the two nations, including longevity. Liga MX has been around since 1943. MLS came into existence in 1996. With that stability comes a better player development apparatus, especially considering MLS initiated its academy system a few years ago.

Still, there's no doubt that money is the principal dividing factor at this moment, a factor which was crystallized during Monterrey's equalizer at Home Depot Center. Monterrey had the luxury of bringing former Argentina international Cesar Delgado off the bench. The Galaxy's substitute, Michael Stephens (2012 base salary: $72,050), was abused by Delgado, who sent a cross off to De Nigris. The Mexican international's header produced a rebound that Suazo, the highest paid player in Liga MX, converted to make it 1-1. Minutes later, De Nigris scored to provide a 2-1 away win.

Major League Soccer has tried to provide small advantages to its clubs in the CCL. It has changed the schedule around to give teams more rest, assisted with providing chartered planes, shared scouting reports of Mexican clubs among its teams and even given extra allocation money to teams that qualify for the tournament.

However, MLS has not increased the amount of allocation money it provides CCL teams for several years. Rodriguez said the league will look into upping that amount at the end of this year.

“We enter every competition with the intention of winning,” Rodriguez said. “We believe that we're close and that every year we get a little bit closer. Experience is the best teacher and so our aim will be next year to do it.”

Could MLS finally make it happen in 2013-14? It's certainly possible, but based on recent history another small step in the right direction might still be the most likely outcome.

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