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Champions Cup proves a roadblock again for MLS

The finals of the 2008 CONCACAF Champions Cup are set, and for the seventh consecutive time, MLS clubs will be spectators. Even more sobering is the fact that when it comes to the CCC, America's teams appear to be, at best, running in place, with few signs that things will improve.

When Mexican champions Atlante were eliminated in the quarterfinal round, the hope was that 2008 would be the year that an MLS team would make a breakthrough and reach the final. But on Wednesday, the Houston Dynamo endured a 3-0, second-leg defeat to Costa Rican champions Saprissa after the first leg finished goalless. D.C. United, despite winning their home encounter against Pachuca 2-1, lost their series 3-2 on aggregate.

Given the hole these two teams dug for themselves in their respective first-leg matches, neither outcome was particularly surprising, although United did play impressively. With Marcelo Gallardo and Jaime Moreno pulling the offensive strings, United made good on manager Tom Soehn's pledge to take the game to Pachuca and test their opponent's back line.

But thanks in part to Luciano Emilio's profligate finishing, the Black-and-Red were never able to convert their pressure into the goals that would have altered the cup-tie's momentum. Granted, a little bit of luck would have helped, and on this count, United got none at all, especially in the 55th minute when Fred was hauled down in the box by Leobardo Lopez, only for referee Jose Aguilar to wave play on.

Instead, the killer play was left to Pachuca substitute Damian Alvarez, whose goal in the 76th minute meant there would be no way back for the Black-and-Red, despite two late strikes from Rod Dyachenko and Franco Niell. That it was a Marc Burch tackle that inadvertently sprung Alvarez on his breakaway only added to United's frustration.

To be fair, Pachuca had their share of chances to wrap up the series on either side of halftime. But when you take care of business in the home leg, as Pachuca did to the tune of two goals, then such wastefulness is largely forgotten.

At least United can rightly claim to have made a game of it. Houston's fate was sealed early in its match in Costa Rica, although this had as much to do with circumstance as with Saprissa's ruthless play. It was bad enough that Dynamo manager Dominic Kinnear was forced to field a makeshift side, with the untried pairing of Patrick Ianni and Craig Waibel playing in the center of defense. But when Waibel injured his right hamstring a scant four minutes into the match, Kinnear was forced to move rookie Geoff Cameron into Waibel's spot, with predictable results.

The teamwork and cohesiveness that have long been the Dynamo's trademark vanished, in no small part to the heavy pressure applied by the hosts. Houston's normally impressive flank play was all but neutralized by Saprissa's outside duo of Try Bennett and Andres Nunez, and when you add in the anonymous performance of midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, Houston was basically Sisyphus in cleats.

Armando Alonso's goal, courtesy of an Ianni deflection in the 35th minute, was as cruel as it was inevitable, although it appeared that goalkeeper Tony Caig, once again, could have done better. And when the Dynamo failed to clear a long throw in the 49th minute, Celso Borges duly took advantage, rifling home the series-clinching goal. Jairo Arrieta's late tally merely put a shine on the evening for Saprissa.

So now one inevitable question arises: As a league, can MLS do more to help one of their clubs reach the final? The answer is: Yes, but not much.

Many have pointed to the minuscule salary cap of approximately $2.3 million as a major impediment, especially given the much deeper pockets of Mexican clubs. This does indeed put MLS teams at a disadvantage, but with the collective bargaining agreement not due to expire until the end of 2009, there is little that will change in the short term. And there is no guarantee that once a new CBA is ratified that the cap will increase enough to make MLS clubs more competitive in international tournaments.

That means it will be up to the clubs to recruit and develop better players, with progress measured in baby steps. The greater reliance on foreign performers and the increased emphasis on international competition has accelerated this process a bit, but it will only go so far as long as the current fiscal constraints remain in place.

Then there is the timing of the tournament itself. MLS sides have long complained that preseason (and the first month of the league campaign) is no time to be going up against the region's best. That is true, but with the newly minted CONCACAF Champions League set to begin later this year, the calendar isn't going to change all that much. The only difference between the CCL and its predecessor is that MLS sides will now enter the tournament at an earlier stage, with the CCL employing a group phase that will run from August through October. The subsequent quarterfinals will take place in February, the semis in March and the final in April. Sound familiar? Memo to coaches: Get used to it.

Yet MLS is not merely a spectator in all of this. One thing the league could have done was to pay a bit more attention to the international commitments of its clubs, because neither Houston nor United were done any favors by the league in terms of scheduling. The sight of the Dynamo playing the weekend before Wednesday's match -- on a Sunday afternoon no less -- borders on the ridiculous. The same can be said for United playing on the road the weekend before traveling to Pachuca and its altitude of nearly 8,000 feet.

MLS has long stressed the importance of doing well in international competition, so why not grease the skids for clubs playing in these tournaments? Given that the CCC schedule was set in December, it's not asking for much that both teams be given one bye during the opening weeks of the season. Both United and Houston played four games in 12 days, and a lighter load almost certainly would have helped with preparation.

For now, the involvement of MLS in the CCC is complete. The league will make some new history in the CCL, but chances are the pages from both books will look very much the same.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com