By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Feb 21, 2018) US Soccer Players - No matter what Major League Soccer does, the primary goal for every one of its increasing number of member teams will be to lift the MLS Cup. That’s as it should be since participation in the is the very reason for any club’s existence. The world has yet to berth a club that only plays in international competition, though there’s probably someone somewhere trying to figure out how to make that happen.
With that domestic focus a reality, MLS is nevertheless doing everything it can to provide its best clubs with the tools necessary to win the only international competition they are eligible for. That's the CONCACAF Champions League, reverting to a knockout competition after yet another revamp. Major League Soccer will always produce an MLS Cup champion. What it hasn’t yet produced is a Champions League winner. MLS not only covets that crown but the spot in the FIFA Club World Cup that comes with it.
Mexico’s vice grip on the Champions League has only occasionally been threatened, and never by an MLS team with a legitimate claim to quality close to that of the Liga MX representatives. 2018 has a chance to be different. MLS is allowing clubs to spend more money on players. That's closing the talent gap between the top end players and the remaining eight positions on the field.
MLS Cup champion Toronto FC carries about as much expectation as any MLS team can as the revised CONCACAF Champions League begins this week. The league’s first-ever triple trophy winner set a new standard for MLS success. A short offseason leads into a round of 17 series against the Colorado Rapids. The Reds were the heavy favorites before taking the first-leg 2-0 on Tuesday night.
Toronto prioritized the Champions League coming into 2018. The club’s depth, a luxury by MLS standards, means it doesn't necessarily have to prioritize.
"We are as equipped as any MLS team ever to win this competition," team president Bill Manning said on Friday at a season ticket holders event. "That's the type of aspirations we have. We don't want to sit back."
That depth is a function of smart recruiting, exploiting the MLS allocation money system, and a willingness to spend on the part of club ownership. The obvious outlay is the three Designated Players, Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore, but Toronto secured a place in league history because of players further down the salary list. Victor Vazquez, Chris Mavinga, Steven Beitashour, Drew Moor, Justin Morrow, and Marky Delgado all made more than $200,000 last year according to the MLS Players Association.
The aggressive approach Toronto has taken to team building means that there is every expectation the club will use every bit of the $2.8 million in discretionary TAM allowed under new MLS rules for both 2018 and 2019. When discussing their efforts to sign better players at slots three through 27, the budget freedom for all teams is the same when it comes to discretionary TAM. However, not all teams are willing to spend it.
Beitashour is gone, but Toronto replaced the Iranian international with Gregory van der Wiel, a 30-year old Dutch defender with 46 caps for his country. US U-17 star Ayo Akinola joined on a Homegrown Player contract. The club might not be done adding pieces, with solid reports suggesting more midfield depth could be on its way. The Reds return nearly all of last year’s chief contributors and used their preseason to prepare for the Champions League by training at altitude in Mexico City.
A slow start to the MLS season could derail any chance TFC has at earning another Supporters Shield, as well as damage the club’s chances of securing a top seed in the tough Eastern Conference. The danger of putting so many eggs into the Champions League basket is that League performance could suffer. Toronto’s depth will be the question as Greg Vanney juggles the Champions League games against the early going in MLS.
TFC’s draw in the Champions League is difficult because that's always the situation for MLS teams. Whether in the quarterfinal round, or the semis, a tough Mexican club is going to be put in front of the MLS champs before they can even dream of the final and a chance at glory. Should Toronto advance, they will likely face the reigning Mexican league champions, Tigres UANL.
Luckily for Vanney’s side, the Round of 16 draw was kind. Instead of getting a Central American side and the awkward trip that comes with it, TFC drew the Colorado Rapids. Colorado’s entry into the tournament stemmed from their surprise 2016. This year’s version is in rebuilding mode. On a frigid night in Commerce City, the Rapids hung tough for a half before succumbing to Toronto’s quality. TFC will take a 2-0 back to Ontario, with all reason to think they’ll be booking a trip to the quarterfinals after 90 minutes.
Toronto FC is an excellent MLS team. That’s never meant much before when it came to the Champions League. Those MLS teams that did make a serious effort in the direction of the international competition typically suffered in the league. 2018 represents the first real test of MLS initiatives meant to push quality higher, make MLS clubs more competitive with Mexican sides, and prevent teams like Toronto from having to make a choice: chase the Champions League or focus on MLS success?
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