By Mark Zeigler (Contact) Union-Tribune Staff Writer
signonsandiego.com

2:00 a.m. March 11, 2009

You’ve no doubt heard of the UEFA Champions League, the annual tournament among Europe’s elite clubs that runs concurrently with their domestic league seasons. Liverpool, Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich played yesterday. Manchester United, Barcelona and Inter Milan play today.

You’ve probably heard of the Copa Libertadores, which is South America’s version and includes clubs from Mexico.

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And you probably haven’t heard of the CONCACAF Champions League, which is a good thing if you’re a Major League Soccer fan intent on believing you’re watching the best soccer in the region.

The CONCACAF Champions League replaced the Champions Cup, which since the early 1960s served as the annual championship for pro clubs in soccer’s hodge-podge North America, Central America and the Caribbean region. The CCL expanded the field from eight to 24 teams and used a group format to determine the quarterfinalists.

The inaugural event began in August, and as we approach next week’s semifinals we have learned three things:

1. Mexico is still king of CONCACAF, at least at the club level.

2. MLS is still not a worthy prince.

3. A more credible contender might be the United Soccer Leagues, the supposed second and third division to MLS’ first division.

“You’ve heard all the reasons or excuses, whatever you want to call them,” USL Commissioner Francisco Marcos says of MLS’ relative inferiority to his league in the CCL. “All I can say is, the results are there, you can look them up … We have proven that we belong.”

Your semifinalists: Cruz Azul, Atlante and Santos from Mexico, and the USL’s Puerto Rico Islanders. The USL would have had a second semifinalist had the Montreal Impact not surrendered four second-half goals in the return leg of its quarterfinal against Santos.

And the MLS?

The United States was awarded four spots in the CCL, and U.S. Soccer deemed all four should come from the MLS and none from the USL. Only one, the Houston Dynamo, reached the quarterfinals and was dispatched by Mexico’s Atlante.

D.C. United was byed into the 16-team group stage. It went 0-5-1 and was outscored by a combined 13-4.

The two others had to play in the preliminary round, a two-leg series last summer, and were embarrassed by tiny clubs. The New England Revolution lost to Joe Public FC of Trinidad and Tobago by a 6-1 aggregate; Chivas USA lost to Tauro FC of Panama 3-1.

What makes the USL performance so impressive is that it technically wasn’t supposed to be in the tournament. None of its 17 U.S.-based teams was eligible. Montreal got in through a Canadian qualifier, and Puerto Rico survived a 19-team qualifier for the Caribbean.

“MLS should have more teams than we do because they are the first-division league,” Marcos says. “Fine, give them three. But give USL one, or at least a play-in game.”

A bigger issue might be the dismal MLS performance, which has largely gone unnoticed by an American public and media not familiar (or perhaps concerned) with competitions outside its borders. How dismal? The four teams combined to win just two of 17 Champions League games and were outscored 35-16.

The quality of MLS, particularly in an era of roster-diluting expansion, has long been debated without much tangible evidence. There are the summer friendlies against European clubs or the SuperLiga tournament against Mexican clubs, but in both instances the foreigners are in preseason and the games are all on U.S. soil.

The CONCACAF Champions League began in late August and completed the bulk of its games by the end of October, coinciding with the second half of the MLS season. MLS clubs whined about what the Brits call “fixture congestion,” saying the demands of various games outside the league were too taxing on a roster limited by salary-cap restrictions. But USL teams played a comparable number of games with smaller financial resources.

“This has done more to enhance our credibility than $2 million or $3 million worth of billboards around the U.S. could have done,” Marcos says. “Before, people had no clue about us. They just know there was a second or third division, but who are they?

“Those questions have been answered on the field, where they should be answered.”

Mark Zeigler: (619) 293-2205; (Contact)


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