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Aug 20, 2009

MLS still not necessarily focused on Champions League

Major League Soccer has lurched into CONCACAF Champions League play once again, with little evidence of improving over last year's pedestrian debut in the regional club championships.

Red Bull New York has already been eliminated -- which shouldn't come as a huge surprised considering the side is plumbing historic depths in MLS. D.C. United debuted this week with a whimper, apparently greeting the tournament with as much enthusiasm as it did a year ago when it was clobbered in the group stage.

At least Houston and Columbus prevailed in their group stage openers (1-0 against Metapan and 2-0 against the Islanders, respectively).

Still, it seems as though Major League Soccer could be in for another year of Champions League apathy, apparently at club level and definitely in terms of fan support.

And does it matter? Not much, really.

I keep hearing about the CONCACAF Champions League and how important it is for Major League Soccer, how teams simply must do better this year in order to rescue the league honor. That sentiment sounds good and all, something opinionated and seemingly informed to drop around the table at the soccer-friendly pub.

But I'm just not buying it.

The risk/reward quotient is way askew in this tournament. Yes, a team can make a little money and land a place in the FIFA Club World Championships. But that's only possible by winning the whole shebang. Otherwise, what's really there for the clubs?

Nobody knows about Champions League. The tournament has no brand recognition, no real equity. A team could get to semis and not get a sniff on widespread media.

At the league level, there are so many other things that would help MLS grow and hasten progress in the bigger picture: continued stadium development, continued attention to the youth initiative, and development of mechanisms to improve the quality of officiating, just to name some.

At club level, too much emphasis on Champions League could spell disaster in league play considering the jam-packed schedules. I have this feeling that club officials would prefer not to deal with the tournament at all, although they may never say so publicly.

What's really at stake here? Perceived league-level esteem? There may be some low-level value there. But realistically, MLS sides could claim this thing every year and the soccer snobs (they are legion in this country) still wouldn't walk across the street to attend an MLS match if you handed them tickets and promised them all the free ice cream they could eat.

As for MLS fans, is supporter blowback a threat in the event of poor Champions League performance? Hardly. D.C. United, New England and Chivas USA were eliminated early last year, and they suffered a very temporary PR black eye for it. Past that? There was hardly panic in the streets. I don't believe fans of those clubs felt any big, dark emptiness inside.

Compare it to the plight of sides that don't make the MLS playoffs. Now that's something fans get twisted up about -- and rightly so. Coaches lose jobs over it, too.

This is by no means an attempt to excuse poor Champions League performance. Chivas USA should not have been eliminated last year by tiny Tauro from Panama. But what really came of it? Same for New England's quick elimination a year back.

Besides, this thing always had a Johnny-come-lately feel anyway. (It replaces the old CONCACAF Champions Cup tournament -- which was always met in these parts with a similar yawn.) Obviously, the new tournament is a copycat of the wildly popular UEFA Champions League. While there's no disguising the fact, couldn't they at least change the name?

Group Stage analysis

(Group play began on Tuesday and will extend through late October)

Group A:

The Houston Dynamo and Mexico's Pachuca should rule the foursome, although Panama's Deportivo Arabe Unido stunned the Mexicans in Wednesday's group stage opener. Metapan from El Salvador also gave Houston all it could handle in South Texas. Pachuca, one of Mexico's oldest and most successful clubs, went surging into group play with a 10-1 aggregate rout over Guatemala's Jalapa in the qualification stage. Metapan could conceivably cause some trouble; Los Caleros are El Salvador's most popular club, so taking points at the 8,000-seat Estadio Jorge Calero Suarez will never be easy for visitors. A relatively young club (established in 1990), Arabe Unido qualified for the group stage by winning Panama's 2008 Clausura.

Group B:

D.C. United is already off to a slow start, having lost 3-1 to Honduran power Marathon in San Pedro Sula earlier this week. It doesn't get any easier from here, as the MLS side takes on Mexican side Toluca next week at RFK Stadium, while Marathon hosts Trinidad and Tobago's San Juan Jabloteh. Marathon's chances took a slight hit when attacking midfielder Marvin Chavez, who has 18 international appearances for Honduras, transferred to FC Dallas. Most of Marathon's first-choice players have appeared for their country. Midfielder Antônio Naelson, who goes by "Zinha" and has 49 appearances for Mexico, highlights Toluca's roster.

Group C:

The toughest group features Columbus from MLS, Champions League 2008-09 runner-up Cruz Azul from Mexico, Costa Rican giant Deportivo Saprissa and the Puerto Rico Islanders of the United Soccer Leagues (the Islanders shocked everyone last year by reaching the Champions League semifinals). Columbus, in great form with six consecutive wins in all competitions, is off to a good start with a 2-0 win in Ohio over the Islanders, who are currently fourth in the 11-team USL. Longtime Mexican international Gerardo Torrado has been Cruz Azul's midfield force at Estadio Azul since 2005. Any team among the foursome could go through.

Group D:

Mexico's UNAM Pumas may be the recognizable name in the group, but the Mexico City side has struggled recently. A 1-0 win over Guatemala's Comunicaciones to open Champions League group play was Pumas' first win in five contests this season. Luis Fuentes' game winner was his team's second goal of the season. The foursome also includes Honduras' Real Espana, led by powerful Honduran international striker Carlos Pavon, and W Connection from Trinidad and Tobago.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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