Wednesday, February 14, 2007

SuperLiga: Give it a chance.

As the CONCACAF Champions Cup (CCC) kicked off last night with W Connection upsetting Chivas 2-1, I am getting more and more excited for club soccer again. DC United, my club, will be facing Olimpia of Honduras next Wednesday night in their Quarter Final match up in the CCC. Regardless of how DC United does in this international tournament, United will also be taking part in the inaugural edition of the SuperLiga this July/August. I am excited about this tournament as well. United will host two of Mexican clubs, Morelia & Club America in the first round and hopefully they will advance to the knock out stage of the new tournament.

One of the reasons I am excited about the CCC and the SuperLiga is because these are chances for DC United and MLS to either prove to the rest of the world that US based club teams can compete internationally; or fail at that attempt and show that we all really have a way to go. I for one think that we will be able to show that we can play with clubs from other countries and it will be another validation for US club soccer. These are baby steps that must be taken in order to get to other, loftier levels.

One person who disagrees with my take on this issue is Ken Pendleton over at US Soccer He wrote a piece yesterday that basically calls for SuperLiga to not be played and for MLS (along with SUM) to begin lobbying CONMEBOL for MLS slots in the Copa Libertadores tournament. He says that the Mexican clubs that take part in the SuperLiga will never take it seriously as they already have the Copa Libertadores to focus on and to a much lesser extent, the CCC. So his plan is to scrap the SuperLiga entirely, just because, even before SuperLiga’s first whistle is blown, the Mexicans are already mailing in their performances.

I can actually understand where Pendleton is coming from and he might have a point when he claims that the Copa Libertadores is the main focus of the Mexican clubs, I have to disagree with him about his suggestion for scrapping the SuperLiga. I disagree on several levels, namely:

1. I don’t think MLS itself is ready for the tournament.
2. I don’t think that any MLS club is ready for the type of tournament that is the Copa Libertadores.
3. I can’t see any real reason right now for CONMEBOL to even consider allowing MLS into the tournament.
4. Why kill something that hasn’t even happened yet?

One of the primary problems with Pendleton’s argument, and pretty much everyone who is lobbying for a Copa Libertadores spot right now is that I do not think that MLS is ready for the tournament. The Copa Libertadores really operates from mid-January to mid July. MLS doesn’t start its regular season until the beginning of April, so how is MLS supposed to have clubs ready for the group stage, or any pre-group stage matches that they might have to participate in? MLS as a league won’t be ready for the Copa Libertadores until the league changes its season format. The league format won’t even be ready for a change until all clubs have their own stadiums to play in, meaning that they dictate the scheduling of matches. Until MLS has all clubs in Soccer Specific Stadiums (SSS), MLS will not be able to schedule their season around the Copa Libertadores, which they really need to do to ensure that their clubs can truly compete.

The MLS clubs themselves truly aren’t ready for this type of tournament, based simply on the past records of MLS clubs in the CCC. Remember PUMAS surgically attaching their feet to DC United’s collective asses? How did Kansas City doe in the CCC that same year? Remember last year when LA and New England were booted from the tournament first round? Until MLS clubs are able to march through the CCC and routinely make the semi-finals, they won’t be ready for a tournament that is operated over the time frame that is the Copa Libertadores. This in my opinion really won’t be seen year in and year out until MLS moves its schedule to at least a January to September type of schedule. For that to happen, refer to the paragraph above.

Let me ask you this, would you want a kid of 12 years old, who hasn’t proven that he can really match up well with anyone around them, to take part in any type of competitive event? Would you even invite the kid in, knowing that they really aren’t ready yet? I wouldn’t, and neither should CONMEBOL. MLS is still 12 years old and has yet to continually prove themselves in a proper international environment. MLS hasn’t shown CONMEBOL that a club like FC Dallas would be able to handle a tournament where they might have to face Boca Juniors at La Bombonara or Santos at Vila Belmiro. Until we get several MLS clubs to go down to Costa Rica and get a victory against Saprissa or go to Azteca and beat Club America, CONMEBOL wouldn’t have any reason to offer a slot to a MLS club. What use would all of the marketing ideas that Pendleton mentions be if the US market wasn’t able to even follow a US based club? CONMEBOL needs to be able to see MLS clubs perform well in the two international tournaments’ available to them now, before they think of inviting them father south.

Based on this, I feel that MLS needs SuperLiga more than the FMF does. Until MLS moves its regular season schedule forward to allow clubs to have season fitness for the CCC matches, SuperLiga will be the only way to show that an in season MLS club can handle an international opponent. Yes, the current schedule has the SuperLiga taking place in the FMF preseason of the Apertura. Until either this scheduling issue changes or the Mexican clubs change their scheduling, this will remain an issue here. The point I am getting at is that MLS needs to do well in the SuperLiga. Once MLS has clubs winning the SuperLiga, especially this season, Garber & Co. will then finally have some small amount of room to stand on when they decide to get in touch with CONMEBOL.

My suggestion for how MLS should finally make it to start negotiating with CONMEBOL about a possible Copa Libertadores spot or two is this type of time line:

First, MLS has got to expand itself to at least 16 clubs, all with their own SSS. Once they have their own stadiums, then the league can begin to migrate its schedule closer to January. I don’t see 16 clubs or all clubs being in SSS until 2011, so MLS has four seasons to get other ground work finished.

Second, MLS needs to win at least 2 out of the first 3 SuperLiga championships. An MLS club has at least got to make the final every season. This is in order to do two things; increase the ability of SUM to get better marketing and higher priced sponsorship. If the LA Galaxy wins the 2007 SuperLiga, then Chicago reaches the 2008 SuperLiga finals, only to have RBNY win it all in 2009, you have to figure that SUM would be able to push for higher priced marketing, which could increase the winners’ purse from $1 million to maybe $3 million or up. If Toyota and Nissan can sponsor the Libertadores and Sudamericana, then Ford or GM could pony up $1 or $2 million for SuperLiga. If this happened, you have got to believe that the Mexican clubs will start to pay more attention to this tournament.

A $3 million dollar pay day for two weeks work might sound pretty appealing to PUMAS or Cruz Azul. Another thing that this might do is start to bug the hell out of the Mexican club supporters if they see MLS clubs picking up that paycheck. How would the Chivas supporters feel about their club traveling to the USA three straight years and getting beaten by MLS clubs every time they go up there? How would the players feel about seeing DC United pick up a $3 million dollar check right after beating them in the finals? It would probably sting as much as last weeks 2-0 loss Mexico picked up against the USA.

So if SUM were able to increase the payouts for the SuperLiga based on higher priced sponsorship, that might get the Mexican clubs to pay a little more attention to the tournament, maybe move their training schedules up a few weeks, who knows. The biggest thing is that if the winner is gonna get $3 million dollars, those who take part are gonna focus on the tournament.

Once MLS clubs are able to show well in the SuperLiga, and have their own SSS to schedule their seasons in, I believe that success in the CCC will become more routine. We will see DC United get the CONCACAF slot at the FIFA World Club Cup, or RBNY, or LA Galaxy or such. Once these steps are all in place, MLS should consider approaching CONMEBOL about a type of entry into the Copa Libertadores. Honestly, I don’t see that happening until maybe, 2016 when the league is 20 years old.

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Blogger The Manly Ferry said...

I like the post and the moxie, Brian (and I'll have to hit you up for a tutorial on photo posting one of these days). I wrote a post one that was more deferential to Ken Pendleton's overarching point. I was going to (briefly, I hope) flesh those out over here.

I think your strongest point comes with suggesting CONMEBOL wouldn't be too keen on inviting MLS clubs to join - and for a number of reasons. The biggest unnamed hurdle so far would be the willingness of member clubs/countries to expand the tournament or lose a spot to a Yanqui club. The low esteem in which MLS is generally held, which both of you touch on, is another one again. I don't know that either of these issues have working solutions. I'm also not sure CONMEBOL officials will be over-impressed by one or several successful run(s) through SuperLiga by MLS clubs. Worse, if Mexican clubs decline to take SuperLiga seriously, we'll never experience a level of competition that will help acclimate us to Copa standards.

The upshot of all that: we make the attempt anyway, ready or not. Painful as it is, there's some education in getting your ass kicked. Like you, though, a few losses to MLS clubs could goad the Mexicans to take SuperLiga seriously. Then again, it might not. It could wind up petering out into nothing before we know it. I don't think that, in broad terms, there's anything that will sufficiently prep MLS clubs for a tournament like the Copa, so I figure let's just jump into the thing. Maybe we can start by finagling one opening and expand from there. We'll take our lumps - without a doubt, we'll lose some, and badly - but I think the league should be game.

The logistical issues you raise could pose a problem, without a doubt. But I also think we could massage them to allow for a delegation to make the trip. This just strikes me as one of those things we just make work. We can use the stiffer competition.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Gene said...

I agree with you that it is premature to kill the Superliga without giving it a shot.

I disagree with the idea that MLS should not even attempted to get into Copa Libertadores because it is not ready. In terms of calendar, while it would be easier if MLS played from August to May, playing in the summer does not automatically kill their chances. Look at Russia & Ukraine and former USSR, which had always played a summer schedule due to weather. A few of the USSR club teams (Dynamo K, Dynamo Tbilisi) won the European Cun Winners' Cup. A Russian team (CSKA) won the UEFA Cup several years ago.

As to the level of play, in the short term, MLS teams are likely to get their ass kicked by the stronger teams in South America. But there is educational value in matching up against better competition, particularly on the road.

Plus, the mere chance to play in Copa Libertadores should make the MLS season more competitive.

12:49 PM  

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