The CONCACAF Champions League group phase has all but come and gone and how it has affected the supposed top two leagues in the region is rather telling.
Mexico, the best league north of the Panama canal, had four teams participate in the tournament. All four reached the group stage.
MLS, a league now in its early teens, has plenty of work to do if it wants to reach the level Mexico has attained. Four clubs participated, only two reached the group stage and only has a chance of advancing.
That's old news, though, right? Well, the new twist to that is this: all four of the participating Mexican teams reached the domestic playoffs. While three of the four MLS teams also reached the playoffs, only two reached the tournament proper. One team - DC United - fell apart in league when the Champions League group stage began. The other team - Houston - appeared to have gone through unscathed but the Dynamo fell apart in their one and only home playoff game. Houston lost to a huge underdog in the Red Bulls and crashed out of the playoffs.
Could that have been attributed to their Champions League participation? At first glance it doesn't appear so. After all, Houston used reserves in their match days before the playoff opener and had a full week to prepare for their home playoff leg.
But playing a loaded schedule that featured thousands of miles of travel and hundreds of extra minutes of soccer was probably going to take its toll sooner or later.
MLS' loaded schedule probably took a toll on all its clubs. New England and Chivas USA each had SuperLiga duties to go along with their CONCACAF Champions League prelims and each team had its share of problems entering the playoffs. DC United's fall only completed what began during SuperLiga, when the team started to come apart at the seams.
MLS teams are not ready to participate in such tournaments for various reasons, mostly depth and salary cap restrictions. If and when the day comes when MLS teams have the money to spend in order to stockpile the resources necessary to compete in such a grueling tournament as the CONCACAF Champions League has become, the clubs will be able to truly compete against their regional foes.
Another wrinkle to this is the MLS Cup final itself. None of the finalists had anything but the regular season to compete in. Columbus and New York each had limited participation in the US Open Cup, and that was back in the late spring and early summer.
Frankie Hejduk and Sigi Schmid were each posed the question of whether the loaded schedule was a benefit to Columbus and New York, as well as being a negative factor for Houston and DC.
Hejduk responded: Obviously the more rest you get, the better it is for you. I mean, I can't speak for those teams. I don't really care on that level for them. I can only speak about us. We've done whatever they've asked us to do. We've played in the games we've needed to play in.
And I'm sure we'll find out next year, I guess you can say. So I can't speak for them because I don't know how their travels, how everything went. Of course, the travel does affect you and the more games you play and the farther off you go, it probably does affect you a little bit. But sometimes it could affect you in a positive way in that you get a bond with the players more and the team plays together a little bit more. And it could affect you in a negative way in making some guys tired or playing guys a little bit too much and having their legs and the air travel and everything take its toll.
I really won't know until next year. But we do have a very deep team here, and I'm sure that we'll fare fine.
Sigi Schmid, of course, has been through the rigors of CONCACAF before, although it was not at the levels the tournament is now. Next season, Columbus will find out all about the rigors of playing a midweek game in Central America while having to travel within the United States on the weekend. Schmid said:
It's tough to put ourselves in the other team's shoes. But I've been there with the Galaxy when I was coaching the Galaxy first eight games of the season in 2003 away. We also had CONCACAF Champions League games we were playing in as well. So we would have, because we were away all the time and it seemed like every away game we were playing was on the East Coast. It wasn't like we were playing San Jose.
So a lot of it depends on the luck or unluck of the schedule you get, because even though you might be playing a game in Costa Rica as part of your CONCACAF duties, you know, your League Game 1 might be at home for you in New England, say if you're New England and the next game might be in Los Angeles. Now you're flying all over the place rather than the games being close.
Houston, I think, has a bit of an advantage in regards to that because of their location. So it's basically if you're going south for sure every time you sort of have to fly past Houston no matter what league game you're playing. So it makes it a little bit easier in that regard.
But, again, I can't say what they've gone through. For us we've dealt with our schedule that we've had and that's been put in front of us I think over the years, I think all coaches do change a little bit and certainly I think I've changed a little bit as a coach as well. I think we've done a great job physically with our team, great job of understanding how much work they need and also making sure that they get recovery at the right times and in the right way. So we've been able to maintain ourselves and we've been injurywise we've been pretty happy with what we've accomplished this year.
But some of that is a little bit of luck and some of that is because we've played less games. As Frankie said we'll find out next year and we'll have to find a way to manage it.