For Club and Country
Few sporting events really take club teams onto a global stage, despite all the proclamations of "world champions".
The World Baseball Classic doesn't count, because the players there are representing their countries. It's the same situation with Olympic basketball and even the World Cup. Basketball also has the added complication that stars in the most successful league in the world, the NBA, compete under a slightly different set of rules than the international game.
Yet the only inter-regional tournament that Major League Soccer gains automatic entry to is the CONCACAF Champions Cup. MLS teams begin playing the competition during the offseason of their league. Little surprise, then, that their results are typically abysmal.
"If MLS teams never win an international title, the league will never gain respect abroad," was the blunt assessment of Uruguayan Jose Cancela, who plays for the New England Revolution.
The drought for MLS in international titles has been in place since 2000, when the Galaxy last claimed the CONCACAF Champions Cup.
Cancela, a Copa Libertadores veteran, was especially frustrated when the Revs departed this year's CCC without even scoring a goal.
"I do feel badly, because an international championship is especially important to MLS and the players. We weren't really prepared for a tournament, and now we've lost the chance to go to the World Club Cup."
Yet Cancela was also willing to vouch for the growing quality of the league he joined three years ago.
"There are very good players in MLS. That's reflected in the U.S. national team and the fact that it has qualified for all of the recent World Cups."
With growing confidence in the truth of Cancela's statement, MLS administration is putting together plans for the league to represent on a world stage, starting with its nearest neighbor.
"This idea of meaningful international competition is very significant in raising our level of play, not just in international competitions, but also in our domestic league," declared deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis.
"Should we be able to pull this off," said MLS commissioner Don Garber, sharing his dream, "envision having a Mexican first division and MLS version of the Champion's League with games going on throughout the year, culminating in a final that would alternate between countries. It is a really big idea and a big opportunity for us to stand even firmer in competition against other professional sports."
MLS can plan such a venture because the league has ventured beyond managing only itself. With the creation of Soccer United Marketing, the league controls a far larger share of the sport in the U.S. With the staff already in place from organizing MLS games, and with greater control over venues and stadiums, MLS/SUM is the premier presenter of soccer in the country.
"Soccer United Marketing [allowed us to] own soccer content that had just a small amount to do with MLS or U.S. soccer," Garber explained. "We got Mexican national team rights. We created Interliga, a success that we're proud of."
In fact, the Interliga tournament, which serves as a qualifying competition for two Copa Libertadores spots from the Mexican first division, is something of a model for the upcoming MLS/MFL tournament.
Interliga answered the question of whether Mexican league fans would come see their teams play in the U.S. -- however, only the big-name teams, like Club Deportivo Guadalajara, sold out the stadiums.
Yet Garber and Gazidis are counting on cross-border competition between the leagues to fuel interest in the new tournament, which they are hoping to launch next season.
"It's the magnification of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry in this region," asserted Gazidis. "It's at the point now where it's a real rivalry, a very unpredictable game with enormous emotions swirling around it and huge interest and great value. That's something that we believe can translate over to the club level, particularly if we can prove that MLS teams can compete with Mexican club teams."
Gazidis also saw value in a scenario where MLS would compete during the season, free of the out-of-fitness excuse, even if the clubs lost.
"I also think there's tremendous value in learning if our MLS teams are not competing with those teams. We'll then have to find a way that our MLS teams are competitive with the Mexican teams, because that tournament will provide the impetus to do that. I'm a big believer in pitting yourself against the best that you possibly can in meaningful competition as a way to improve yourself."
Winning such a tourney could do a lot to change the image of MLS.
"It hasn't gone well for our MLS teams this year, so internationally, we still have a lot to prove," pointed out Cancela.
The U.S. clubs would also probably be proving some of their quality to local Latino fans, some of whom have disdained the league without knowing very much about it.
"There's a massive Hispanic market in this country that loves the game that would, we believe, really get behind this kind of continental competition," stated Garber.
If those fans came out, it would also be a challenge to the supporters of the league barely entering its second decade. Though MLS now averages about 15,000 spectators in attendance, few in the crowds are up to level of passionate support demonstrated for the most popular Mexican league teams. Their fans dress religiously in their squad's colors, tote banners, streamers, balloons and confetti, and cheer all game long, turning games into a celebration of the team.
Both on the field and in the stands, there is something to prove, which is what true competition is all about.
Of this Cancela was very well aware.
"We hope in the future to prove that MLS is growing and can win the international titles to be considered a quality league."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at email@example.com