What’s Really Holding MLS Back From CCL Success

Mexican teams able to spend for depth, unlike MLS clubs
by Ray Marcham   |   Thursday, May 14, 2015

US Soccer Federation (USSF)

It’s just a few weeks away from the draw for the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League taking place in Miami, and five Major League Soccer teams will then know where they travel to.

Unfortunately, every MLS team goes in with a disadvantage created not by themselves, but by their league.

Time and again, Don Garber says that his goal is to make MLS one of the top leagues in the world by the next decade. That includes an MLS team winning the CCL, a feat that hasn’t happened in the current format. But unless he suddenly has a change in philosophy, neither will happen.

The reason? Money, or the inability of MLS clubs to spend the money needed to reach those goals. The league’s salary cap is set so low (currently at $3.49 million) that even with designated players, Generation Adidas alumni, and other exceptions, there’s not enough room for teams to spend what is needed to establish the depth necessary to compete, and compete well, in the Champions League. While Garber insists that MLS loses about $100 million a year, but right now that’s just $5 million per club (assuming that $100 million is a real figure, rather than a scare tactic). Every owner in the league could cover that with no problem. Most clubs in Europe, and in Mexico, have much higher debts than $5 million.

The low salary cap served MLS well in early history of the league, and likely was a reason it survived. The bad memories of how inflated salaries doomed the original NASL was still in everyone’s minds, and that was fine. But that was then, and when they go against clubs from Mexico, and that’s always the measuring stick used by MLS, that’s when the impact of the cap shows the most.

That impact is on depth. The maximum salary a team can spend on a non-DP player is $436,250, which is barely above the average salary in Liga MX ($418,000). While MLS spends the big money on those DPs, and spends plenty, it’s the ability of Mexican sides to spend for depth that helps them success not just in the CCL, but also in the Copa Libertadores (where they’ve played regularly since 2000). Role players get paid well in Mexico, and that’s not the case in MLS.

Of course the question needs to be asked…would the salary cap conversation have come up again if Montréal had defeated Club América in the CCL final? It would have, mainly because of the money Impact owner Joey Saputo spent to have his club spent considerable time in Mexico before the first leg of the final at Estadio Azteca, prepare the best they could, then get back to Montréal to prepare for the second leg at Stade Olympique. He tried to give the Impact everything needed to win, and until the final half in Montréal, it was working.

So, where does that leave Los Angeles, Seattle, Vancouver, DC United and Real Salt Lake? All have ownership groups that could, and would, spend more on depth than they are allowed now. One would think that the Galaxy and Sounders, at least, would jump at the opportunity to give role players more money and to give themselves the depth needed for runs in the CCL and US Open Cup (though Seattle takes the USOC much more seriously than Los Angeles does). That they made the semifinals just two years ago would make them a bit hungrier to get to a final they haven’t been to (neither were in the 2014-15 Champions League). They would spend to get the needed depth, or keep needed depth, to make the final. But they can’t, thanks to MLS’ low salary cap.

DC United, RSL and Vancouver would all likely spend to add depth, as well, if given the chance. RSL was as close to winning the CCL in 2011 as Montréal was this year, but with the same result. DCU is back for the second straight year, and last season’s CCL quarterfinal run would have inspired them to add what they thought was needed to go two steps further.

The Whitecaps have changed their team a bit from 2014 and it has been a success so far, as they are on top of the MLS Supporters’ Shield standings (as of this writing) with a 6-3-2 record. They are also making their first appearance in the Champions League, and likely would have spent even more than they already did to add to their depth to make their initial CCL run a successful one. If nothing else, the success of the Impact would be a blueprint for Vancouver to go deep into the CCL.

But those blueprints, those dreams to finally be that first MLS club to win the CONCACAF Champions League and move on to the FIFA Club World Cup, are only that until MLS changes its salary structure, mainly the cap. With money coming in from expansion, from the new TV contracts and from better sponsorship, there’s no excuse for the salary cap to not be at least $5 million, if not $6-$7 million.

If teams could pay for the depth that has allowed Mexican sides to dominate the CCL since the new format began in 2008, then the long-awaited parity, or close to parity, with Liga MX would finally happen. MLS clubs would have a much better chance of not just making the CCL final, but actually winning it. Then the stature of the league would increase greatly.

But the clubs need to be given a chance. And MLS, right now, won’t give them that chance.


Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.