After two rounds of the Group Stage in the CONCACAF Champion's League, MLS clubs are leading the pack. If you would have told me two years ago that I would be writing a lead like that, I would have laughed at you. The reason is that until two years ago, for the most part, MLS clubs simply didn't put a great deal of emphasis on winning the Champion's League--it was another international competition that simply drained the talent and resources of clubs from their MLS league campaigns.
But this year, we see something different, we see five MLS clubs (four from the United States and 1 from Canada) not only competing but succeeding in the tournament. That's right, after two games each, all four of the groups are headed by the MLS clubs in their groups. The L.A. Galaxy leads Group A on six points, the Colorado Rapids top Group B on four points; FC Dallas is carrying six points in Group C and the Seattle Sounders lead Group D on six points. Part of the success is that FC Dallas and Seattle both traveled to Mexico and won on Mexican soil for the first time in 49 games. Had Colorado not blown their lead against Real Espana, they too would have been on six points. Toronto, the Canadian representative, is carrying three points as their loss in the competition came at the hands of FC Dallas.
So what should we attribute this success to? Well, the cynics would say that the Mexican sides (Pumas and Monterrey) didn't field their normal first XI, which is true. The cynics would also say that L.A. Galaxy and Colorado have not faced their Mexican opponents either at home or in Mexico. Which is also true. But there is something a little different this year--two factors which make it more likely that MLS clubs will be able to compete and which make it possible that certainly three and possibly four MLS clubs can make the knockout stages. I think the MLS clubs are taking the competition seriously this year. The success of Real Salt Lake, making the final and almost winning, has shown that if MLS clubs take the competition seriously, real success can be found. I believe the mindset, more than anything else, is what has put the MLS clubs in the position they now find themselves.
First, MLS has made it easier, from a personnel standpoint for MLS clubs to compete by expanding the rosters, making player development a priority and the general improvement in quality of play and quality of players. I believe that Don Garber and the rest of the MLS leadership and owners always wished that MLS clubs would do well on an international stage importance. But in the past, their focus was a tad myopic, looking first to the league, without understanding the importance of the regional, international club competition. Garber's delusions of grandeur in earlier years was always tempered by the cruicible of the Champion's League. No matter how good MLS clubs looked when competing against each other, they were often found lacking when competing against Mexican clubs or Saprissa or the top clubs from the region.
MLS rule changes, the homegrown player rules, the expanded rosters, the reserve league, even the young designated player rule (even thought it didn't directly related to the most recent results) all contribute to an atmosphere at the clubs that gives them the ability to prioritize the Champinon's League without necessarily sacrificing league play. Clubs now have, or are on their way to having, the depth to play their first team players in the Champions' League matches and then rest them for league games if necessary without affecting the quality of the league play. So instead of just young players, rookies or reserves getting time in the Champions' League while the first team rode the bench, now you see these clubs starting 9 or 10 of their normal starting 11 and then using reserve and squad players for a couple of games in the league play.
I have no doubt that these rules changes were about making the League stronger, their carry over effect cannot be minimized. The rules changes, particularly expanded rosters and the reserve league, puts the MLS on a more even keel with other regional powers, particularly the Mexican sides because the players get more game time in meaningful matches. The general upward trend of the quality of play can be linked to the intense focus on player development being made by Don Garber & Co., changes that are welcome and important.
These changes do make a difference in whether teams are prepared, from a personnel position, to compete in the regional competition. But I also believe that the support that MLS leaders gave to Real Salt Lake also indicate something of a shift in the mindset of MLS leaders. When RSL came close to hoisting the Champion's League trophy and did so without the express, initial support of the MLS, I think Garber & Co. had to jump on the bandwagon quickly. In doing so, leading up to this year's competition, I think MLS has made a implicit, if not explicit, effort to give clubs support for the Champion's League. I think theyGarber & Co. want an MLS club to hoist the Champion's League trophy and compete in the Club World Cup, even if the MLS squad gets stomped on at the Club World Cup for a few years. RSL made their run and came close--largely without some of the benefit that accrue to MLS clubs now and certainly not with the emphasis, up front, that the League put on the tournament. So whether they intended to or not, MLS has made it possible for clubs to compete in the regional, international tournament. MLS has sent a message, whether they were explicit or not, that winning the Champion's League is important and good for the club, the league and the sport in general.