The way Francisco Marcos saw it, all he wanted was a chance. For years, the president and founder of the United Soccer Leagues felt his supposed second-tier teams deserved respect and recognition instead of banishment and obscurity. All they needed was a platform on which to perform.
The platform was granted in the form of the CONCACAF Champions League, and Marcos was right all along. The supposedly lowly USL, the league that’s supposed to be a notch below Major League Soccer, now has a one-in-four chance of seeing one of its clubs reach the FIFA Club World Cup.
The Puerto Rico Islanders are in the semifinals, where they’ll face Mexican side Cruz Azul for a spot in the Champions League final. Montreal lost to Santos 5-2 on Thursday in heartbreaking manner — the Impact allowed two second-half stoppage-time goals and fell by a 5-4 aggregate score. Otherwise, the USL would have claimed half of the semifinal field.
Ultimately, all Marcos and USL clubs wanted was an opportunity, so when they got it, they weren’t about to do anything but approach it with the utmost respect.
«Our teams didn’t go into this — just like they don’t go into the [U.S.] Open Cup or the Canadian Cup — as a half-assed exercise,» Marcos said. «It’s real. It’s a way to vindicate themselves. It’s a way to prove that they belong.»
Based solely on results (preliminary phase, group stage and knockout round) in this new-look Champions League tournament, not only does the USL belong, but statistics also suggest that in CONCACAF, the USL is a notch below the Mexican league and nobody else. Consider:
• Overall, only two leagues had a combined winning percentage of more than .500 — the Mexican league (.634) and the USL (.600).
• Only the Mexican league (17) and the USL (10) combined for double-digit victories.
• MLS clubs combined for an overall record of 2-10-6, which amounts to a .222 winning percentage.
• With twice as many teams in the tournament, MLS had one-fifth the amount of wins as the USL.
Seen as the lowly second division in the U.S. by many — particularly those outside the country — the USL far and away was the superior league over MLS in the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League.
«That’s not to say MLS teams aren’t serious about it,» Marcos said, «but obviously there is a difference I think in general attitude. Our teams take it very seriously. They go in it with everything they’ve got. In that sense, success should not be totally unexpected.»
Few expected either Montreal or Puerto Rico to advance out of the group stage, let alone both. And in the knockout stage, both clubs won their home games and each scored road goals. Before a late collapse, Montreal enjoyed a lead in its road game while Puerto Rico beat CD Marathón in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
MLS teams, meanwhile, collapsed. New England and Chivas USA couldn’t get past the qualifying round. D.C. United fell flat on its face with an 0-5-1 mark in the group stage. Houston accounted for both MLS victories and reached the knockout round, but after losing 3-0 at Atlante, MLS’ participation ended quietly. MLS supporters, though, pointed to the loaded schedule their four participating clubs dealt with.
«If a team in MLS was playing in the Open Cup and the SuperLiga and the MLS season itself and the Champions League at some point, a coach may have to make a decision and say, ‘Well, I’m going to rest four guys in that game, and three in that other game,'» said Marcos. «When you rest players like that, you are going to be weaker. In our case, every game is important. The Champions League schedule is very important. It is the road to credibility.»
For USL teams, playing internationally meant having the opportunity to show they belonged. Their approach to the game was important, and it’s what led to their respective successes.
«They are going to have probably a little more of a single-mindedness about them,» said Marcos, «a little more purpose that says, ‘We can’t afford to screw up. We really need to try and do our best here, because if we win, it’s kudos to us, it’s credibility to us.’ If you lose, people will say, ‘What did you expect?'»
For years, MLS teams have crashed out of the tournament’s fore-bearer, the Champions’ Cup, and now Champions League, with alarmingly regularity. Excuses are commonplace, the preseason one the easiest and most convenient on which to fall back. After all, teams commonly have gathered a month or so before the first CONCACAF game with a new squad and haven’t played any competitive matches before trying to win an international cup competition. But Marcos isn’t buying it.
«I’m making any apologies for the success we’ve had,» he said. «We’re not going to take it any more lightly because we took it seriously and someone else may not have taken it as seriously. I’m sure Houston wanted to win. Houston has been one of the best teams in MLS. They’ve had success in CONCACAF and the SuperLiga. Still, it didn’t happen for them. Are they not as well prepared? Lost a player or lost two players and didn’t replace them? Well, we’re all going through that. We haven’t played a game. Montreal and Puerto Rico’s first official games of this year are the CONCACAF games. They haven’t played an official game since October.»
MLS will have another go at it in the 2009-10 edition of the Champions League. New York and Columbus already have qualified. Houston and D.C. will participate in the tournament again as well. The USL, meanwhile, has no teams guaranteed of participating in the tournament, no spots set aside for them because, after all, MLS is the top-flight American league and is the one that gets all the participation at the expense of the USL.
On the field, of course, that hasn’t been the case. «All I can say is the results are what they are,» Marcos said. «You can look them up and we’ll go from there.» But Marcos said he’s hopeful that his league’s status in CONCACAF and in future editions of the Champions League will change, too.
«I hope that CONCACAF will look at our success and realize that it’s a real league with real teams, and that we will be given some consideration, in terms of other teams that maybe the league champions themselves, if they’re not Canadians or Puerto Ricans, are considered for one spot in the competition,» he said. «I don’t know how that’s achieved, if it’s at the expense of one of the four MLS teams or if it’s instead of the Open Cup champions, if our champions don’t happen to win the cup. I just hope we’ve proven that we belong and that we’ve been given some consideration as a result of that.»