Inter Miami, Columbus’ Champions Cup games makes this MLS’s most important week in a while


Nearly 30 years in, Major League Soccer is still as much an idea as it is a league.

The United States and Canada’s top competition is a relative infant on the global stage, at least decades younger than other leagues worldwide. As it continues to grow — and it has undeniably grown — the league’s boosters measure its progress in metrics that often feel nebulous. They talk about MLS being a “league of choice” without ever explicitly defining what that means, or trumpet the rapid expansion of the league without mentioning that the majority of the league’s teams still lose money and struggle to gain traction nationally, let alone globally.

Opportunities for MLS to measure itself against global competition are golden, and this week’s quarterfinals of CONCACAF Champions Cup may be MLS’ biggest yet. They present a crucial test for two of the league’s premier franchises and a chance for the league to demonstrate its growth where it counts: in results, in games that matter, against teams considered to be among the giants of the region.

Should an MLS team advance past this stage and win the competition, the reward would be even sweeter: A chance to go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the world on home soil.

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On Tuesday, Columbus Crew SC will take on Monterrey-based Liga MX side Tigres at Estadio Universitario. Columbus, defending MLS Cup champions and the league’s most aesthetically pleasing team, is also guided by maybe its most promising young coach, Wilfried Nancy. The Crew is the most well-balanced example of team-building in MLS today; the club acquires good players from within the league, develops its own through its academy, and is willing to spend on difference-makers like forwards Cucho Hernandez and Diego Rossi.

Across town the following evening, Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami will take on CF Monterrey. Despite some shortcomings on the field, Miami has rapidly become the highest-profile club in MLS history thanks not only to Messi but a trio of other global stars that joined him in Flordia — Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez. It stands as an example of another, much rarer type of MLS success: attracting big stars on the back end of their careers, and building a team around their aura and expertise.

The MLS sides are entering their respective return legs with much work to do. Columbus held its own in a 1-1 draw against Tigres last week but faces a tall task in besting the 2023 Liga MX Clausura champions in Mexico. Miami fared even worse against Monterrey, giving up a pair of goals at home en route to a 2-1 defeat at home. History will not be on the MLS teams’ side – the league has produced three finalists and one champion in the last 15 years of the tournament. Monterrey and Tigres alone have made eight finals combined in that span, with Monterrey winning five of them, and Tigres winning one.

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It feels like a very realistic possibility that both teams could get eliminated, leaving MLS without a single team in the tournament’s semifinals (MLS’s other entrant, the New England Revolution, were beaten 4-0 at home by Club América, making a comeback at the Azteca all but impossible).

Still, there’s the chance of a turnaround, and there is spice to go with it. After the first leg, Messi reportedly joined a handful of teammates and Miami head coach Tata Martino, in confronting the game’s referees in the tunnel. Messi is also said to have taken exception to comments made by Monterrey head coach Fernando Ortiz, who suggested that MLS, and Messi in particular, would receive favorable treatment from officials, a common talking point over the years, which led to a shouting match outside Monterrey’s locker room at Chase Stadium.

Things got even more heated when audio of Monterrey assistant coach Nico Sanchez leaked late last week, in which he referred to Messi as a “possessed dwarf” with the “face of the devil.” Sanchez went on to offer some choice words about Martino as well. He has since apologized publicly.

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Messi went 45 minutes and scored a goal in Miami’s 2-2 draw against the Colorado Rapids this weekend and seems almost certain to start on Wednesday. His heightens the already-massive stakes for Inter Miami, for which the quarterfinal is the next step in ownership’s vision of the club as a global brand. Martino has openly stated that CCC is his side’s top priority for 2024, more important even than MLS Cup. That’s because winning will earn the club a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup, which will be played next year in the United States.

That tournament provides MLS with something truly rare: a chance to compete against the biggest clubs in the world. It’s an opportunity the league has been given only once, when Seattle Sounders FC became the first MLS club in league history to feature in the tournament.

Seattle’s CCC title — the first by an MLS side in the tournament’s modern history — was touted by many league and club executives as the dawning of a new era, one in which MLS had finally cracked the decades-long continental dominance of Mexican clubs. In truth, that was far from the case. Seattle’s path to the final was an easy one and it takes far more than one title to erase years and years of history. MLS went back to its losing ways in 2023. This year, two of the league’s better sides, the Philadelphia Union and the New England Revolution, were entirely dismantled by Mexican clubs.

“It would help if they didn’t put the tournament to start the season,” Porter said after the Revolution’s 4-0 drubbing at the hands of América. “We’ll play a game every three days when we’re not fully fit and in form, and we don’t have the roster … (They fielded) essentially 11 (designated players) …  You saw, they brought in guys off the bench that were DPs in MLS…You’re playing a team that can manage, basically, the window a lot better than we can.”

Porter’s remarks echo a common refrain from MLS coaches, and there’s some truth to it — Mexican teams don’t have to deal with the spending restrictions that MLS places on its teams and Liga MX sides are in their stride during the tournament, not in early-season form. But the reality of the situation isn’t changing anytime soon. If MLS aims to compete globally, the league must find a way to be more competitive in continental competition, or at least to lessen the effect of those disadvantages.

There is something of a backup plan. If Miami and Columbus are eliminated this week, MLS officials will quickly pivot to Leagues Cup – MLS and Liga MX’s joint venture that pits all of the two league’s teams against each other in a mid-season tournament. Last year’s newly-expanded edition was largely a success, in no small part due to the performance of Messi in his introduction to the league. But the tournament is also largely tilted in MLS’ favor, with every match being played in the United States. It feels brand new, more than a bit synthetic and largely irrelevant on the global stage – winning the competition gets a team into the Champions Cup where they will continue to play regional competition.

Even league executives themselves realize that the league’s fans prioritize CCC over Leagues cup; their own market research has shown that MLS aficionados place much more stock in the tournament than its newer, flashier younger sibling.

Champions Cup — despite the fact that it’s had several different formats and nearly as many names — is steeped in history, with actual competitive stakes and actual respect. Failures by Columbus and Miami won’t have any long-term effects on the league’s business model, or its perception amongst casual fans in the United States. To those who have been paying attention, though, another CCC flameout will be yet another reason to offer an eye roll at claims that Major League Soccer is well on its way to becoming a “league of choice,” whatever that means.

(Top photos: Getty Images)





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