WASHINGTON, D.C. (Thursday, April 10, 2008) -- If Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber was trying out a career as a stand-up comedian, he is fortunate he has his day job to fall back on. As chief executive of a professional sports league in which a third of the players aren't paid a living wage and a good deal more make a meager minimum, Garber must have been joking when he took D.C. United to task for losing to well-heeled, traditional Mexican power Pachuca in a CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinal leg played in Mexico.
In the wake of both United and two-time defending MLS Cup champion Houston Dynamo bowing out of the Champions Cup semifinals to Pachuca and Costa Rica's Saprissa, the natural thing for Garber to be wondering exactly what MLS teams need to do in order prevail against the best clubs in their region.
"I was thinking about that while I was watching the [Pachuca-D.C.] game the other night, and boy, we've got to do better," Garber told Soccer America. "For this league to win over the core audience, we've got to be able to be among the best clubs in North America. D.C. United talks about their goal is to win a spot in the World Club Championship (which the Champions League winner does). They want to be the best team in the region, the best team in CONCACAF. They really struggled the other night (in losing the first leg 2-0)."
If Garber were at all serious about making MLS clubs more competitive in the international arena, there are a few things he could in fact do. But alas, at least some of those things would cost money, probably a sizeable investment, though well within the reach of the league's owners.
United was eliminated last night despite winning 2-1 in its home leg, falling behind 1-0 before scoring a pair of late goals, ultimately falling short 3-2 to Pachuca in its two-match, total-goals series. D.C. could not overcome the 2-0 loss suffered after conceding two second-half goals April 1 at Pachuca's Estadio Hidalgo.
In fact, Hidalgo is one of the toughest venues for visiting teams in the hemisphere. Pachuca sits 7,800 feet above sea level or about 2,000 feet higher than Mexico City and its infamous Estadio Azteca. It is very difficult, bordering on the impossible, for a visiting team coming in from sea level to acclimate and play at 8,000 feet, leaving most visitors gasping for air by the second half of a match .
Pachuca, last year's Mexican League champion, is having a mixed season at best, presently sitting in seventh place in the crowded standings at 6-5-2. But only one of the losses was at home, to Cruz Azul, a club that also plays at altitude in Mexico City.
So giving up a couple of second half goals to Pachuca at Hidalgo is understandable. Could United have done better, possibly, but MLS -- and Garber -- could have helped a lot more in that effort.
So, some suggestions if MLS teams are to be competitive with the best in the hemisphere:
Increase the salary cap about $1 million per team. While MLS has some well-paid players, many are not with a minimum salary of $33,000 for the 18-man "senior roster." After that, each team has up to 10 players who are paid either $17,700 or $12,900 per year on "developmental" contracts, in a neighborhood where one might find Starbucks baristas rather than professional athletes in a first-class league.
Teams such as United and the Dynamo could end up playing as many as 13-to-16 matches above their MLS schedules when considering the SuperLiga in July and early August, the Champions Cup and its new replacement, the Champions League in the fall, to say nothing of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Playing this many games requires depth -- and not illusory depth. In MLS competition, players making $33,000 or $17,000 players can hold their own because they are playing against other MLS team with players of similar experience and compensation. But the stark fact is professional teams usually get what they pay for (in relation to the pay scale of a particular league).
So if MLS clubs aspire to compete on a regional level, they need a payroll where they can afford to pay reserves with skill sets good enough to at least compete for starting jobs. Houston, missing four starters to injury and another to suspension, was no match in a 3-0 loss to Saprissa in last night's Champions Cup second leg after starting the semifinals with a 0-0 draw.
Furthermore, to make MLS teams more competitive internationally, the senior roster size should be increased from the current 18 to at least 21 players, if not 23 or 24. With an increased salary cap, teams could add depth on the bench and maybe even gamble with some players who might need time to develop.
Then too, there are some things that can be done that wouldn't cost the league a dime, such as not require teams being sent into extremely difficult international matches -- not exhibitions, but in major competitions -- to play difficult league matches just days before.
Leagues all over the world regularly reschedule matches when teams are in international competitions. But United had to visit Kansas City for their league opener March 29, just three days before facing Pachuca at Hidalgo. This meant that United coach Tom Soehn had to decide whether to hold out starters -- standout midfielder Fred didn't start -- from the Colorado match to have them ready for Hidalgo or to play to win the MLS game understanding what likely would subsequently happen to them at high altitude 72 hours later.
Houston also had to travel to the New England Revolution ahead of its first-leg match with Saprissa. Frankly, that's nuts for a league to expect better results from their teams while making them operate under such a handicap.
When MLS teams enter international competition, they invariably have the shortest histories, fewest fans and least financial resources among the top teams in the event. If Garber is to expect better results, he must do something to level the playing field rather than criticize the MLS teams for their inherent shortcomings.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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