When you mention the “Champions League,” in the soccer world, everybody knows that you’re talking about the European tournament, arguably the marquee event of every club soccer year. If you want to talk about North America’s version, also called the Champions League, you have to insert the acronym “CONCACAF” to make sure people know you’re talking about.
Even then, they might not know much about the “CCL.” Major League Soccer and Liga MX will never close the gap in fan interest between the Champions League and the CCL, which kicks off this week. But their goal should be to do more, not invent other leagues or tournaments.
The February kickoff of the tournament is poor timing for the five MLS teams in the competition, as usual. All five — Atlanta, Kansas City, New York, Toronto, and Houston — are in preseason mode, but now begin their competitive seasons with tricky two-legged ties with Latin American competition. In theory, four of the five are favored to advance, but preseason games against in-season opponents have a way of closing talent gaps in a big hurry.
Not that all five MLS teams are necessarily going to make the competition top priority, either. Last season, the Colorado Rapids lost its opening-round matchup against Toronto. After the loss coach Anthony Hudson said, “This is a preseason game for us.”
Some teams treat the competition as a showcase, but others have used it as little more than a distraction.
Even with that in mind, though, Liga MX and MLS — the two dominant players in the CCL — are thinking hard about further tie-ins. Last October’s Campeones Cup, when MLS title-holder Toronto was hammered 3-1 by Mexican champions Tigres, was just the beginning. This year will see the repeat of that game, and the two leagues are considering other ideas, such as a joint cup competition, or perhaps even a North American Super League, in which the two leagues would merge.
Fans aren’t clamoring for it. Players already decry the difficult travel in MLS. Adding south-of-the-border destinations wouldn’t improve that. Between league games, playoffs and national cup competitions, the teams’ schedules are already stuffed, so there’s not much room for another tournament.
The only reason that the leagues are talking about this at all are defined by two words that should strike fear into all soccer fans’ hearts: commercial potential.
Liga MX struggles to sell itself to non-Mexican audiences in the USA. MLS can’t grab much of a foothold in Mexico. Combining the two would open an avenue for both into a larger market, which is a concept that gives marketing executives the vapors but leaves fans cold.
Instead of dreaming up new competitions, the leagues should focus on improving the tournament that is already in place. A TV deal would be a good start, as the only English-language broadcast in the United States is on Yahoo Sports. MLS could help by giving Mexican teams a little competition; the northern sides have reached the finals just three times, winning zero.
The Champions League in Europe is a showpiece. The CONCACAF Champions League needs to head in that direction. A better tournament, more beloved by fans, would be far more interesting than anything else Liga MX and MLS could dream up.