By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Oct 17, 2018) US Soccer Players - Since its inception, MLS has tried to become a stronger league. They've loosened the constraints of single-entity, spent more on players, and increased the number of teams. That's widened and diversified the level of competition found within the league. MLS is a far better league now than it was even a decade ago, but the work is far from over.
In a couple of years, though, MLS may see the level of play in the league improve quickly and significantly. According to South American reports, CONMEBOL is negotiating with both MLS and Liga MX officials about including them in the Copa Libertadores. That could happen as soon as 2020.
Both MLS and Liga MX should jump at the chance to participate in South America’s storied competition. Copa Libertadores would provide MLS with a jolt just as the league is set to continue its growth both in numbers and in strength.
Now, Copa Libertadores with MLS and Liga MX involved is not perfect. The wrinkles that exist are worth trying to smooth over for the benefit of the leagues’ growth.
Having up to four MLS teams competing against South America’s best year in and year out would have a positive effect on the league no matter the circumstances. Sure, arranging flights and travel itineraries could be a nightmare, but that is just an obstacle to overcome rather than a barrier that should dash all hopes.
MLS is the best it has ever been. There is more excitement now across both MLS and non-MLS towns. New markets are showing that the league can succeed in unlikely places. That evolving definition of success has pressured the older markets into upping their game.
Expansion teams have been raising the bar in the league since the wave that began late last decade. Teams like Toronto FC, Seattle, and Portland have not been afraid to take financial risks by bringing in strong players from abroad. All three have won MLS Cups That raised bar caused teams like New York City FC, Atlanta United, and LAFC to spend money and bring in the best players available.
The best way to bring all of that positivity and forward-thinking moves together is by taking a big risk, like sending teams off to battle against South America’s best. The league has had its teams playing in competitive games against Liga MX and other CONCACAF teams for several years now, and that has made for a more sophisticated league. MLS teams take outside competitions like the Concacaf Champions League and the US Open Cup seriously.
MLS has proven to be the second-best league in Concacaf through the Champions League. They've figured out how to play on the road in Central America and Mexico. While MLS teams have not figured out how to beat Mexican teams in the final, they're no longer regularly falling to Liga MX opponents in the knockout rounds.
Adding Copa Libertadores to the mix would only increase the amount of MLS teams involved in outside competitions and help bring new experiences to those teams and their respective supporters. Playing in Boca Juniors’ famed La Bombonera or against Fluminense in Maracana Stadium would be an unrivaled experience.
Chivas de Guadalajara played Boca Juniors at La Bombonera in the 2005 edition of Copa Libertadores. That's a game that is still talked about more than a dozen years after the final whistle sounded.
Travel concerns are very much a concern. Seattle to Sao Paulo, for instance, does not make for a smooth itinerary. Neither does Toronto to Buenos Aires or Kansas City to Santiago. There is more to the travel than simple distance. MLS teams typically take charter flights while playing in the Concacaf Champions League. MLS limits charter flights to four per year while playing in league games but there is no such limitation on playing internationally.
If Seattle faced Sao Paulo, the team could potentially play on a Saturday at CenturyLink, spend Sunday traveling to Brazil via a charter flight, rest up and train on Monday and Tuesday and play Wednesday in Sao Paulo. Immediately after the match, the team would take a flight back to the US and arrive sometime Thursday.
There would be no rushing to airports to try and catch commercial flights and deal with layovers and customs, which would add hours to the trip. With charter flights, it is as simple as taking a bus from the stadium to the airport and stepping immediately onto a waiting airplane.
Perhaps one way to cut down on any potential nightmare travel scenarios would be to limit the potential opponents MLS teams could face. Perhaps stipulate that MLS and Liga MX teams must play one another in group play, which would mean much shorter distances for at least a third of the games.
The Concacaf Champions League has already created some fairly difficult travel scenarios. Seattle played Trinidadian side Caledonia in the 2012 edition of the Champions League. The Sounders were able to navigate their way down to the Caribbean and back just fine.
No matter the potential scenarios that arise, it is only three games that teams would need to undertake these difficult excursions. It would not be a weekly thing for teams to figure out. If that were the case, then it might be asking for too much.
Players take on such travel challenges all the time when playing for national teams and they are willing to jump on planes and represent their countries when the call comes. The depth for MLS too is now in a much better spot for teams to be able to use a mix of players in league and cup competitions and still field competitive teams for all games.
Libertadores is a storied and prestigious tournament, one of the oldest club competitions in the world. To play in it would be an honor. If the chance exists, MLS should accept CONMEBOL's invitation.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Photo by Maciek Gudrymowicz - ISIPhotos.com - ISIPhotos.com