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Sep 3, 2008

Champions League debacle hurts image of MLS

MLS really has to figure this one out.

How can two of the league's best teams be knocked out of the CONCACAF Champions League by what are essentially a group of semiprofessionals from countries with a combined population less than that of Massachusetts?

The demise of Chivas USA (a 3-1 aggregate loser to Tauro FC of Panama) and the New England Revolution (a 6-1 elimination by Joe Public FC of Trinidad & Tobago) is not good for the credibility of MLS. There are many explanations for the defeats -- injuries, lack of depth, overscheduling -- and all indicate the league is not putting its teams in a position to succeed on the international stage.

This is nothing new.

D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy ran into similar difficulties in the early years of MLS. And that was without a SuperLiga or the current expanded Champions League format, and when navigating through the regular season was easier than it is now.

The essence of the problem is that successful MLS teams are penalized by the system. Instead of being reinforced for the outside competitions, the league's top teams must operate within the same salary cap as everyone else. So they take on extra burdens without being sufficiently prepared.

MLS teams simply do not have rosters deep enough to perform in as many competitions as the league has set up. Houston could yet play 50-some games from March through November; the Dynamo and D.C. United will be crowding in Champions League group-play matches during the final weeks of the regular season.

The Revolution almost seemed relieved to have been eliminated from the Champions Cup, because now they will be able to concentrate on league play. They won't have to make trips to Honduras and Mexico just when the MLS season is at its most important stage.

Playing without a regular striker and with three minimum-salary players in the starting lineup, the Revolution struggled mightily in a 4-0 home loss to Joe Public on Tuesday night. The difference in the game was provided by Guyana striker Gregory Richardson, who scored thrice and set up Reon Nelson for a goal.

Give the Revolution Richardson and they might have won. (Two MLS teams called an agent regarding Richardson after the match, and Richardson said he has been in contact with the Columbus Crew.) But the fact is, the Revolution performed like a team with a $20,000-per-month payroll (equivalent to the salaries of top teams in Trinidad), partly because they were depleted by excessive games and injuries.

This was the first time a Caribbean club eliminated an MLS team from the Champions tournament and the first time an MLS team surrendered more than two goals to the Caribbeans in the competition. If red flags haven't been waving around MLS headquarters before, they should be now.

MLS teams have proven over time to be more organized than Caribbean clubs but do not present as much flat-out quickness and speed as Jamaicans and Trinidadians. If a team is exhausted, as the Revolution clearly seem to be, a pacey group can make them look even slower than they are.

Once a few of an MLS team's top players are eliminated, the performance level can drop drastically. MLS is set up to encourage parity, so within the league such a drop-off can be expected. But sending MLS teams into the world without the means to succeed hurts the image of the league. The Joe Public and Tauro teams which defeated their MLS counterparts fully deserved to move on to group play in the Champions League.

Unfortunately, there are as many incentives for MLS teams to fail (higher draft picks, etc.) than there are for them to succeed during the league season. And if MLS teams hope to do well in outside competitions, they are going to need more reinforcements than are possible under the current salary cap.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.com.

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