McCarthy's Musings: MLS must tread carefully as Copa Libertadores chatter increases again

Reports out of Brazil on Tuesday revived the persistent rumors about the potential inclusion of MLS teams in the South American tournament.
The scuttlebutt isn't a surprise. CONMEBOL has expressed interest in MLS before. And why wouldn't it?

The idea makes plenty of sense from the federation's perspective. Expanding the tournament to Canada and the United States would generate more commercial and television revenue for the tournament and its participants. The two-tiered system – a first playoff stage for selected qualifiers and a second group stage with champions from every country (plus a few extra berths for Brazil and Argentina and the first round winners) – offers plenty of flexibility to accommodate a couple of extra teams. Any tinkering will require deft political maneuvering to keep all parties relatively happy, but the concept of a financial windfall with minimal associated cost would likely quell any concerns.

Although the proposal appears just as enticing to MLS and its clubs in theory, the decision to participate isn't as straightforward as it might appear at first glance. MLS executives and investor/operators must address and rectify genuine competitive, financial and structural concerns before they can seriously weigh making this particular leap.

The structural concerns take precedence at the outset given the league's commitment to the CONCACAF Champions League. CONCACAF simply will not countenance the thought of allowing the top MLS sides to bypass its tournament to play in the Libertadores. Nor should MLS consider spurning its host confederation to do so. But those strictures limit MLS' options in any attempt to send its best teams to a stronger competition.

Unlike its many of fellow leagues in Mexico and South America, MLS does not adhere to the standard FIFA calendar or play a split-season schedule. Although Mexican teams bear a significant burden to participate in the Libertadores and often suffer in domestic and international play as a result of those considerable obligations, they possess a structure more capable of coping with those demands.

Liga MX benefits from its composition by excluding CONCACAF Champions League entrants (the champions and the runners-up from the previous Apertura and Clausura campaigns) and relying on the Apertura table to sort out its Libertadores qualifiers (thereby ensuring the strongest possible representatives when group play starts in a month or two).

MLS does not enjoy such latitude with its spring-to-fall schedule. The league would likely keep the same qualification setup for the Champions League – MLS Cup, Open Cup and Supporters' Shield winners plus the defeated MLS Cup finalist for the following year's competition (e.g., 2012 qualifiers enter the 2013-14 Champions League) – and preclude teams from participating in both tournaments in the same year. In addition to ruling out those top sides, MLS would need to prohibit any non-qualifier participating in the knockout stages of the current edition of the Champions League (e.g., Seattle this year) from playing in the Libertadores group stages for fixture congestion concerns.

At that stage of the process, MLS would find itself selecting its Libertadores representatives from a reduced pool of potential teams. In the best case scenario, the league could send its second- and third-placed teams from the regular season to the second strongest club tournament in the world with little match practice. If everything unfolds in a more unforgiving manner, the entrants could hail from the middle of the pack. Both potential options could lead to embarrassing international excursions given the league's spotty record in a shallower competition.

MLS' current perch in the Champions League – a competitive second fiddle to Liga MX – indicates that the league would have to infuse significant money into its squads to ensure its clubs could compete in the Libertadores. This isn't a cheap or quick fix solved with extra allocation resources and more efficiency in the transfer market.

In order to give its clubs a fighting chance to compete, MLS would need increase its pliable salary budget significantly across the board (probably by a multiple of two or three for an yearly uptick in the high eight figures) to maintain domestic parity and international dreams and shoulder significant travel expenses. And even those expenditures provide little assurance that its teams would manage the demands of the competition well enough to replicate Mexico's modest success in the competition.

In the bottom-line world of MLS, the desire to bolster the league's international profile by entering the Libertadores must coexist with more practical considerations. Right now, the costs of participating in the competition far outweigh the benefits. Until MLS can find a way to reconcile its hopes with its realities, this alluring idea represents a step too far for this growing league.

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