Tuesday, August 15, 2006

MLS and the Copa Libertadores

The final leg of the 2006 Copa Toyota Libertadores takes place tomorrow night at Beira-Rio stadium in Brasil, home of Internacional. They will be hosting the defending Copa Libertadores and World Club Cup Champion Sao Paulo, whom they have a 2-1 lead on goal aggregate. The Copa Libertadores is the South American equivalent to the UEFA Champions League in Europe, in which the winner represents the CONMEBOL region in the FIFA World Club Cup Championships that is held in December in Japan.

The Copa Libertadores as a tournament has evolved over the last couple of years. Starting in 1998, CONMEBOL has invited clubs from the Mexican Football League to take part in the tournament, with Mexican clubs showing very good results, including 4 semi-finalist finishes and 1 finalist (Cruz Azul in 2001). If a Mexican club were to win the Copa Libertadores title, they would not represent the CONMEBOL region in the World Club Cup, as they are a member of CONCACAF. However, if a Mexican club were to win the Copa Libertadores, it would shake CONMEBOL club football for quite a while.

In 2004, the process in which the Mexican Football Federation selected the clubs that take part in the Copa Libertadores was altered to a separate tournament that is held every January, called the InterLiga. This tournament has been held in the United States (Texas, Arizona and California) and consists of 2 groups of 4. The 8 clubs that take part are based on their combined records in the two phases of the Mexican football season. The two clubs that win the Apertura and Clausura are excluded from this tournament as they will be taking part in the CONCACAF Champions Cup.

As we soccer fans in the USA have just been exposed to a large number of international friendly matches that most had some type of MLS participation involved, it is a natural idea to suggest that in the near future that MLS should try and take part in the Copa Libertadores. In 2005, DC United took part in the Copa Sudamericana, which is similar to the UEFA Cup in Europe, but still has participation from most of the larger clubs in South America. The Copa Sudamericana currently invites 2 CONCACAF clubs to this tournament; PUMAS was invited in 2005 as the runner-up to Saprissa in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, and DC United as the defending MLS Cup Champions. The 2006 Copa Sudamericana will see Toluca and Pachuca take the two CONCACAF spots.

Based on the precedent of CONMEBOL now inviting two CONCACAF clubs to the Copa Sudamericana and that DC United have take part in this tournament, I see no reason for MLS clubs not to be taking part in a future Copa Libertadores tournament. However, I feel that three things need to happen, in this order -

1. MLS clubs need to win the CONCACAF Champions Cup (CCC) at least 3 more times, and preferably, 3 times in a row. That way we show that international cup matches are not too big for us and that we can win in Mexico City, or Monterrey or Saprissa.

2. MLS clubs make a good showing in the Copa Sudamericana. Taking advantage of the path already available to MLS would be the fastest method of entry into the Copa Libertadores. The MLS clubs that do take part in the Sudamericana needs to always, always, make the Semi-Finals at the very least. Having a good showing by MLS clubs will always improve the chances of more MLS and CONCACAF clubs being invited back to the Copa Sudamericana and to the Copa Libertadores.

3. MLS needs to get at least 2 or 3 clubs into the Interliga. That is really the only way that MLS should legitimately get any type of entry into a regional club championship in which we are not members of that region. We need to be able to play well against the Mexican clubs and qualify through this format.

Remember, the only way we will get invited is if CONMEBOL feels that we bring something to the tournament. If all MLS clubs played the way that DC United played last week against Real Madrid, or the way that FC Dallas played against Tigres UANL then MLS will show that they actually have something to bring to the tournament. If MLS clubs continue to play the way that DC United did against PUMAS in Mexico City and get pasted 5-0 or the way the MLS Select Squad did against Real Madrid and lose 5-0, then why would CONMEBOL even feel that we could bring a bucket of water to the tournament?

The first way MLS shows that it would be able to bring something to the Copa Libertadores is by regularly winning our own regional club championship tournament. Why would another region even think of inviting clubs from a league that has only ever one their regional tournament once? I am not talking about having one club win the CONCACAF Champions Cup 3 straight times, as that would only lead to that one club being the only idea to offer an invite. No, having three different clubs go into the CONCACAF Champions Cup and defend the CONCACAF Champions Cup for MLS would be a better sign. Think about it, DC United wins the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2007, and then in 2008, FC Dallas marches through and wins the cup. 2009, the LA Galaxy or Red Bull New York take the championship. Having three consecutive seasons where different MLS clubs get victories over Mexican or Costa Rican clubs would be a good enough impression and might induce an invite.

The second way MLS shows that it would be able to bring something to the Copa Libertadores is by having different MLS clubs continually take part in the Copa Sudamericana. The Copa Sudamericana is a perfect chance to show the abilities of the MLS clubs as they would be matched up against CONMEBOL clubs. Having MLS clubs in the Copa Sudamericana will not be enough. The MLS clubs that do take part in the tournament will need to get good results, advancing to the Semi Finals at minimum. Anything resembling the 5-0 obliteration that DC United took on the chin from PUMAS last season in the CONCACAF Champions Cup and CONMEBOL will forget where they put MLS’ phone number. DC United’s performance last season in the Copa Sudamericana was actually a very good step. They drew 1-1 at home and lost in a hard fought close match to Catholica, 3-2.

Getting into the Copa Sudamericana might be a little difficult if MLS clubs start routinely winning the CONCACAF Champions Cup, as the winner of the CONCACAF Champions Cup is not invited to the Copa Sudamericana. However, based on the fact that PUMAS reached the Copa Sudamericana finals last season against Boca Juniors, if history is any type of guide for how CONMEBOL operates, we might see a future expansion of the Copa Sudamericana and the inclusion of more CONCACAF clubs into the tournament.

The third way that MLS could get into the Copa Libertadores and the most likely way is to have MLS clubs start taking part in the Interliga. They only real way that this would happen is if MLS/SUM were to throw huge sums of money to the Mexican Football Federation to have at minimum two MLS clubs replace two Mexican clubs. The Mexican Football Federation would have to be on board with this way before CONMEBOL ever gets to decide on this. If MLS gets two or three spots into the Interliga, it would provide a direct avenue into the Copa Libertadores. Who knows, we might actually be seeing the beginning of this type of evolution. The CONCACAF Champions League that has been floating around in so many different rumors just might be a repackaging of the Interliga and the top two clubs in the tournament might get a spot in the next season’s Copa Libertadores.

I would like to see MLS take part in the Copa Libertadores. I think that participating in the tournament would raise the level of play in all MLS clubs that get to take part. Fan support would be high as well, which would give the local fans yet another reason to cheer for their clubs. I think that several MLS clubs right now would have at least put on a good showing, namely DC United, FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo.

In all honesty, I do not see this happening for at least another 5 years. There are too many steps to take for MSL clubs, so this will have to take time. Getting into the Interliga and having more MLS clubs participate in the Copa Sudamericana are good steps towards this.


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