The sad reality of CONCACAF Champions League is people in MLS Land don’t care that much, a debilitating ailment for a competition hungry for significance. When Major League Soccer teams are alive in the tournament (which they were, until last round), you see plenty of opinions describing the confederation competition as important for the region’s future. But unless a team can go on a run like Real Salt Lake did two years ago, MLS fans drift away. The tournament’s important when a U.S. or Canadian team is in it, but when they’re not? Well, we have a regular season to tend to.
I mention this because Champions League’s final starts tomorrow with a first leg that’s carrying the buzz of a comatose teetotaler. While Mexico is covering it with the same hyped anticipation they gave last year’s final, this year’s rematch between Monterrey and Santos Laguna has failed to capture the imagination of the MLS faithful. People who keep tabs on Liga MX will watch tomorrow night, but neither Monterrey’s potential record-tying win (a third in a row) nor the presence of U.S. international Herculez Gomez with Santos Laguna can entice an MLS audience that moved on once Seattle and Los Angeles where bounced.
It’s a truly fascinating matchup. Monterrey are the kings of the region, having represented CONCACAF at the Club World Cup two times in a row. To get there last year, they had to go through Santos Laguna, who got revenge by defeating the Rayados in the Clausura final. Though the teams have split their last 11 meetings (both teams with a 4-4-3 record), Santos won 1-0 this weekend when the teams surreptitiously met in Torreon.
Monterrey has the most talented player in the region, Chilean attacker Humberto Suazo, but while for a long time the Rayados also laid claim to being CONCACAF’s most talented squad, it’s not longer clear they have more firepower than the Guerreros. Oribe Peralta, Carlos Darwin Quintero, and Gomez form the region’s best attacking trio. Panamanian defender Felipe Baloy is as imposing as any player in CONCACAF, while 39-year-old former Mexican international Oswaldo Sanchez continues to defy time in goal. Add in a pinch of revenge-driven motivation and this weekend’s result and Santos is favored to knock off the holders.
There’s no shortage of storylines capable of corralling interest, but that doesn’t matter. For as much as diehard MLS fans want CONCACAF Champions League to be a major undertaking – one which teams would gear up and prioritize over early regular season matches – there’s little appetite to see it through. The cause behind promoting Champions League is MLS, not the tournament itself, so when the league’s teams bow out, so do its supporters.
There’s a tinge of hypocrisy there, but it’s understandable. Just as England suddenly started caring about Europa League once its teams were in it (and not Champions League), MLS fans go where their teams go. We may again next year hear the annual calls to start making CONCACAF’s Champions League more than it is, but unless another RSL comes along, we’ll likely be left where we are now: Waiting for weekend action while devoting little more than the corner of our eye to the teams that eliminated MLS powers.
Rayados start their quest for three-straight tomorrow at 10 p.m. Eastern. Santos Laguna is searching for their first confederation title. MLS starts again on Saturday when Toronto hosts New York.