MLS commissioner Don Garber hammered home a point that he has been making for quite some time during his March to Soccer address prior to the opening of the 2013 season last week.
"Let me state it very emphatically here," Garber said. "By 2022 we want to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world. We're going to measure that by the quality of our play, the passion of our fans, the relevance of our clubs in their markets and also the viability of our business.
"The foundation of our plans has been laid very soundly. The foundation of the plan going forward is going to be divided into two very strategic, specific areas. One is to enhance the quality of play, the second is to grow our fanbase."
MLS can reach the world summit over the next 10 years, or at least climb a lot closer to it from where it is now, in a number of ways, and Garber touched on many of them in his address. More investments in Designated Players, accelerated youth development, improved referees and coaching, and continued commitment from involved ownership groups are all important facets in growing MLS exponentially in the coming decade.
Having an MLS club win the CONCACAF Champions League is another important step on the climb to worldwide respectability and is a required check point before the league can even dream of cementing its place on the world stage.
The first legs of the quarterfinals of the 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League get started this week, when the Houston Dynamo, one of three MLS teams remaining in the competition, welcome Mexican power Santos Laguna to BBVA Compass Stadium on Tuesday. The Seattle Sounders hit the road to face current Liga MX leader Tigres UANL on Wednesday, and the two-time reigning MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy meet Costa Rican side Herediano on Thursday.
The road won't be easy for any of the MLS clubs. For either Houston or Seattle, who are on the same side of the knockout bracket, it could mean having to defeat two Mexican clubs just to make the final, where Monterrey could be standing in hopes of completing its CCL three-peat. For the Galaxy, just getting to the final may entail knocking off Monterrey in the semifinals.
The top clubs across the CONCACAF region are no joke, especially on their home soil, and MLS has to match that level of invincibility en route to taking its big leap over the next 10 years. Mexican clubs have been able to be so successful in large part because their rosters are deeper and the young players on those rosters are prepared for first-team minutes. That is an area where MLS is lagging behind but attempting to catch up.
In recent seasons, MLS has come close to reaching the region's peak but has not been able to overcome its top Mexican opposition. Ever since the shift to the group-knockout format, Mexico has won every regional club title, and as a result has had representation at the FIFA Club World Cup for the eyes of the world to see.
Mexico's headway on the world stage has been buoyed not only by the success of its clubs in the CCL but also the likes of Club Tijuana getting results in the Copa Libertadores. MLS teams cannot gain entry into the Copa Libertadores, meaning the league can only prove its maximum worth on the field by capturing the CCL crown. The competition may not have always been a priority for clubs, but that notion has changed completely considering the prestige associated with winning.
"We've got to do better than that in the tournament," Garber said. "We've got to make it a priority. It is a goal for Major League Soccer to win the Champions League. If we're going to achieve our goal and be one of the top leagues in the world, we've got to be the top league in the region, and we've got a lot of work to do in that tournament to win."
Real Salt Lake came the closest that any MLS team has in 2010-11 before succumbing to reigning two-time defending champion Monterrey in a heartbreaking final. Most figured the Galaxy, featuring the Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, David Beckham star trio, would challenge for regional supremacy last year, only to stumble out of the gates and fall to Toronto FC in the quarterfinals before even getting a crack at a top Mexican foe.
Had the Galaxy reached the Club World Cup, it would have been a marketing dream for MLS, with its marquee players and marquee club potentially facing the likes of reigning European champion Chelsea and reigning Copa Libertadores winner Corinthians. Instead, it was another worldwide tournament that elapsed without an MLS entrant, another opportunity gone by the wayside.
U.S. soccer fans may feel quite conflicted ahead of this year's knockout stage. On one hand, the prospect of having an MLS team compete at the Club World Cup would be a tremendous step forward. On the other hand, so too would the experience for national team players like Herculez Gomez (Santos Laguna) and Jose Francisco Torres (Tigres), and even the opportunity for U.S. U-20 standouts Benji Joya and Daniel Cuevas (Santos Laguna) to potentially make the trip to Morocco this December should their club win the regional crown.
Those in MLS' corner hoping that Garber's vision becomes a reality should not be conflicted at all, though. In order for MLS to take off for newer heights in the next 10 years, having a commanding control of its own continent has to be high up on the checklist. The three clubs competing this week rightfully have visions of glory for themselves, but they are carrying the flag for a league as a whole, one that needs them to cross into uncharted territory so the rest of MLS can follow in their footsteps and take the next leap in the progression toward Garber's 2022.