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 Posted by Doug McIntyre
Aug 5, 2014

CONCACAF Champs Lge vital to MLS

2014 CONCACAF Champions League winners -- Cruz Azul.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Lost in all the pre-match buildup to Wednesday's showpiece here between the MLS All-Stars and European powerhouse Bayern Munich (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN) is the fact that an MLS team actually played a foreign foe in a game that counted this week.

On Tuesday night, some 2,500 miles east of the Rose City, the Montreal Impact quietly kicked off the domestic circuit's 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League campaign with a 1-0 win over visiting Salvadoran club Club Deportivo FAS.

Montreal ImpactMontreal Impact
CD FASCD FAS
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With the eyes of most MLS fans on Portland, it's no surprise that a low-profile game involving the side with the fewest points in the 19-team league flew under the radar.

Then again, maybe that's part of the problem. Because the truth is that win or lose against Bayern on Wednesday, the result of the friendly -- and once all the celebration and ceremony is stripped away, that's all the All-Star game is -- really doesn't matter. A victory won't move the needle any more than beating Chelsea two years ago did, and a convincing loss like the one MLS' best suffered against Roma last summer won't reveal anything new about MLS, either.

What would, undoubtedly, is a regional title.

For all the talk about how much better MLS has become over the last decade, the biggest improvement has probably come off the field. That's not to say the quality of play or of the players hasn't gone up, too -- it has -- just not to the point where the best American and Canadian teams have the depth to consistently meet their big-spending Mexican counterparts on equal financial footing.

- Hernandez: Mexican sides primed for CCL success
- Bell: CCL Group stage preview

The evidence is plain for all to see. Since CONCACAF adopted the current format in 2009, Liga MX teams have won all six titles, while only one MLS team, Real Salt Lake in 2011, even made it as far as the final.

It's not just money that gives teams from south of the border an advantage. The knockout stage of the tournament coincides with the start of the MLS season, when Mexico's best teams are already well into their Clausura schedule.

Mainly though, it's about the cash.

The good news is that MLS' next collective bargaining agreement will provide more resources for player salaries, and perhaps even an additional designated player spot. Still, MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott made it clear on Tuesday that any improvement in the league's Champions League performance will come as a result of a slow, steady climb.

"I think it's about continued team growth so that we're competitive, and I think that's happening every year," Abbott said. "I don't have any specific tactic that we need to pursue."

That means it will largely be up to MLS clubs to find ways to bridge the depth gap themselves, through player development and at times even prioritizing international competition over league play.

Montreal Impact defender Hassoun Camara in action against Club Deportivo FAS during their CONCACAF Champions League clash on Tuesday.

Sometimes, that decision gets made for them. Montreal has had such a terrible MLS season that reaching the playoffs probably isn't realistic.

Last week, Impact owner Joey Saputo made it clear that he views the Champions League -- a tournament his club has enjoyed success in in the past -- as a clean slate and a way to salvage some pride.

"A group stage victory will put us in a position to relive the launch of this club like was the case in February 2009," Saputo said, referring to when the Impact nearly upset Mexico's Santos Laguna, capturing the imagination of the city along the way.

"[That was] one of the reasons we were looked at as a viable soccer market in the eyes of MLS."

Salt Lake came agonizingly close to taking the title two years later, losing at home to Monterrey by a single goal.

This summer, D.C. United, Sporting Kansas City, the New York Red Bulls and the Portland Timbers will join Montreal in trying to become the first MLS team to win the competition and advance to the FIFA Club World Cup.

"It's very important for MLS to keep taking strides toward winning that championship," Timbers captain Will Johnson, who was on that RSL team three years ago, said this week. "We share that responsibility, so this year we're going to put everything we have into winning that group.

"It's something we're taking very seriously."

MLS fans ought to, too.

Doug McIntyre

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. He has watched or attended almost every U.S. men's national team game since Paul Caligiuri's "shot heard 'round the world" and has covered the Yanks for The Mag since 2005. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.

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