By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 11, 2022) US Soccer Players – The Seattle Sounders took a significant step towards the semifinal round of the Concacaf Champions League on Tuesday night, taking a 3-0 lead over Club Leon. Seattle ceded possession to the visitors but struck on the counterattack early and often. Fredy Montero scored twice on the night, the first from a penalty kick won by midfielder Cristian Roldan. Any concerns over leaving goals on the table ended when Jordan Morris finished off the game in the 90th minute. Now for the hard part.
The Sounders will travel to Leon next Thursday, where the home team will be the favorite. Concacaf hasn’t followed UEFA’s lead in getting rid of the away goals tie-breaker, so even a single goal for the Sounders could make the difference. Even three goals up, no one is banking on the Sounders to stroll into the semifinals.
While MLS hopes don’t rest entirely on Seattle in this edition of the Champions League, the Sounders carry the highest expectations. That’s due in large part to roster depth. Perhaps with an eye on the Champions League and possessing the MLS budget tools necessary to reinforce that roster, general manager Garth Lagerwey hit the market. The club brought in free agent Albert Rusnak and re-signed club legend Fredy Montero. With the presumed return of Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris to full fitness, the Sounders dreamed of achieving more in 2022 than another run at an MLS Cup.
Because no MLS team has ever won the Champions League, expectations are moving targets. On paper, MLS clubs have looked good enough to break the Liga MX hold on the trophy. Then the tournament plays out with what now seems like a foregone conclusion. A Liga MX club wins, representing Concacaf in the Club World Cup. No matter how good the Sounders were last year, how much of the team they returned, or how much they bolstered in key positions, belief in their ability to win it all still carries doubt.
The last time an MLS team entered the Champions League with this level of expectation was in 2018. That season Toronto FC was fresh off of a triple-trophy haul in 2017. The Reds spent a portion of their preseason in Mexico to better prepare for the Champions League. The goal of winning the tournament was a consistent refrain from head coach Greg Vanney and the players. It wasn’t their only focus, but the club made it a talking point to start the season.
Results backed up that insistence. Toronto navigated a match-up with Colorado and beat two Mexican clubs on the way to the final. In the championship round, the club fell agonizingly short, losing to Chivas on penalties. By the smallest margin possible, an MLS club lost again. That season made it seem like MLS was on the precipice of a breakthrough. With just a little more luck, an MLS team would break the CCL pattern.
What happened to Toronto in MLS told the rest of that story. The club missed the playoffs in 2018, thanks in large part to a rash of injuries and poor individual seasons. It’s impossible to know for sure if that stemmed directly from the Champions League run. However, in retrospect, it looked like one of the best teams MLS had ever produced stalled due to focusing on the Champions League.
Toronto’s regular season in 2018 still resonates. It’s reasonable to ask of any team if it’s possible to balance the early season pursuit of the Champions League with meeting expectations in MLS. History underlines the level of difficulty. We already know that every Champions League is another test of Liga MX dominance in the region, one that Mexico’s topflight answers in the affirmative. Then there’s the financial issue for MLS clubs, needing more money to build deeper rosters.
MLS’s slow investment in its product is still a problem that needs fixing. One can only hope that an MLS team winning the Champions League title won’t become a validation of Major League Soccer’s conservative approach to spending.
There’s also something unique about this edition of the Champions League. Next year MLS and Liga MX launch the fully realized version of the Leagues Cup, a month-long tournament that will involve every team from both leagues. It’s anybody’s guess exactly what the Leagues Cup will mean for the perception of the Champions League, but it is almost certain to change it. The Champions League may retain a measure of prestige, particularly because it will remain the only way for CONCACAF teams to reach the Club World Cup.
Following the launch of the revised Leagues Cup in 2023, Concacaf will expand the Champions League to 27 teams for 2024. Five teams will enter in the Round of 16, including the winner of the Leagues Cup. MLS and Liga MX can’t, and won’t, leave the Champions League behind entirely.
Whatever the connections between the two tournaments, the Leagues Cup will necessarily distract from the Champions League. A competition pitting MLS versus Liga MX without smaller clubs from Central America and the Caribbean will feel bigger. The pause in the calendar to make room for the Leagues Cup means the tournament will benefit from no domestic league distractions. All eyes will be on the Leagues Cup. The Champions League doesn’t get that type of exclusive attention.
Right now, Liga MX could bring the current era of the Champions League to an end the same way it’s operated since the original revamp of the tournament. By continuing to win, they send a clear message about this era of club soccer in North America. There’s no doubt that MLS would like to change that, but they’re running out of time.
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Photo by Nashville SC