Last night, Major League Soccer repeated an old move. Even before Toronto FC officially exited the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal stage, it was already time to switch to the MLS game. Once Santos Laguna showed they could score at will, attention was shifted to Real Salt Lake - Montreal in front of a sold out crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium. MLS moved on, literally as quickly as it took to change the channel. Switch from abject failure to local market success and call it a night. Or something.
For MLS, this is nothing new. We've been here before, and we'll likely be here again when advancing in a tournament requires beating a Mexican club in Mexico. Returning quickly to the Major League Soccer schedule might be convenient, but it does nothing to answer the CONCACAF Champions League problem. If anything, it intensifies the difference between what the Mexican League is doing and what MLS isn't.
Mexico's clubs are dominant in a tournament they don't take all that seriously until the later rounds. Put one Mexican club on the side of the bracket with clubs from the rest of the Confederation, and it's that Mexican club advancing. Nothing new for MLS fans, who can recite the reasons at this point. More money, a higher level of competition in league games, and a commitment from most Mexican clubs not to return to the old cliché of what their league looked like in the 1990's.
Mexico's Primera Division changed. Flush with television money and TV networks owning clubs, they decided to treat their domestic league as something worth watching. Gone were the games filled with pass arounds and half chances. Defending was no longer about disruption, but instead about strategy. Styles emerged, risks were taken, and games became fun to watch even without a rooting interest. What was once an unadventurous league that didn't compare well with the top flights in Europe or South America turned itself into a show.
Consider the statement Chivas sent when they opted for the architect of an earlier Barcelona super team to help figure out what's going wrong with their season. They didn't bring in someone who could take the current squad, adopt an overly defensive strategy, and spend the rest of the season trying to grind out low scoring results.
Mexico remains a league under tremendous flux every six months when the next season starts. Coaches and players change, almost at random. Success is a moving target, and it's almost impossible to lean on past glories for very long. All of this makes for a stronger Mexican league.
Though MLS would like to tell their own version of a similar story, the results aren't there. It's not just the failure of an MLS club to knockout a Mexican club in the later stages of the Champions League. It's week-by-week and game-by-game. MLS remains a league full of clubs that believe winning is success, regardless of how those games are won. It's a problem that once plagued the National Hockey League in the neutral zone trap era, and it locks a league into a style that is highly unlikely to increase interest across the board.
Yes, MLS has done well at the gate on average across all clubs this season. A big part of that was Montreal's home opener and opening games in general. We've already seen stark attendance drop offs to go along with the MLS schedule as usual. Clubs are playing not to lose, devolving to that same disruptive style of soccer that's become an MLS hallmark. No passing lane can be left uncontested. There should be a defensive player lunging at the ball at all times. Strategy should be sacrificed for panic defending in the final third. 1-0 grind out results are good results as long as it's your team scoring the goal.
What's left is a league asking too much of its fans, especially in the older markets where they've seen all of this many times before.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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