After a weekend of MLS openers for 18 of the 19 teams in the league, Major League Soccer’s attention now shifts toward three teams – the Sounders FC, the LA Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo – as they engage with some of the top teams in the region in the CONCACAF Champions League.
By 2022, MLS Commissioner Don Garber hopes to have Major League Soccer among the top 10 leagues in the world. To get there, though, it first must climb the mountain of CONCACAF for the first time since Sigi Schmid’s LA Galaxy were crowned winners of the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2000.
Now in the revamped Champions League, the Sounders FC is one of three MLS clubs vying for that triumph, along with the Galaxy and Dynamo, and this week they meet Tigres UANL in the quarterfinals of the regional tournament.
“We have to do better in the Champions League,” Garber said while meeting with the media at CenturyLink Field while the Sounders opened the MLS calendar against the Montreal Impact. “I think the opportunity for an MLS team to win the Champions league in this region and go to a World Club Championship and compete against some of the best clubs in the world is an important goal. It’s something that we are pushing our clubs to be mindful of and hope that they would take that tournament — which I think is much better managed with the new leadership at CONCACAF — far more seriously than some clubs have taken it in the past.”
The league is fighting an uphill battle toward reaching that end, though. While facing teams from Mexico, MLS sides go toe-to-toe with teams that don’t have the roster limitations imposed by things like the salary cap, expansion and parity-inducing methods of players acquisition that exist in MLS.
In addition, the Sounders and Dynamo will square off against top tier Mexican teams that are now nine matches into the 2013 Clausura season while MLS teams opened their calendar over the weekend. There has been discussion about adjusting the MLS calendar to narrow the timing of that gap.
Each year since the Sounders joined the league in 2009 the start date for the MLS season has been earlier and earlier and this year it is at its earliest date in the league’s 18-year history.
“The calendar discussion is one that is ongoing amongst the media and fans and certainly amongst the league. I don’t know that we would move it just because of the Champions League schedule. This is the earliest we’ve ever started; it’s going to be the latest we’ll ever end,” Garber said. “The weather hasn’t been great in a handful of our markets. All of these things have to go into the pot to be stirred around, and we’ll hopefully come up with a decision that makes sense with all the things we need to satisfy.”
Financially, teams that reach the Champions League are given a slight boost, but not significant enough to put them in the financial realm of top Mexican clubs.
In the interest of the stability of the league – which has now become the longest-running top-flight division in US Soccer’s history – MLS has continued its steady upward climb, avoiding dramatic changes to the salary budgets of the teams that are not matched by the existing revenue streams.
“We don’t want to just have a league that is popular; we want to have a league that has a strong financial foundation. So it all has to work hand in hand,” Garber said. “We want to grow our fan base that will lead to increased revenues. If our revenues are able to grow, I’m confident that we will, like most leagues, end up spending more of that revenue on players.”
Seattle’s series with Tigres opens Wednesday in Monterrey, Mexico, and continues March 12 at CenturyLink Field. The Dynamo meet Santos Laguna Tuesday at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston and finish March 13 in Torreon, Mexico. The Galaxy draw Herediano from Costa Rica in their quarterfinal matchup, starting Thursday in Heredia, Costa Rica, and finishing March 13 at the Home Depot Center.