A "parity league", "Minor League Soccer", or even a "footballing joke" are just a handful of the names that the international community, as well as the handful of hardcore American soccer fans label Major League Soccer.
For the past two or three years, Major League Soccer has tried every maneuver known to mankind, in an attempt to gain global recognition and be recognized as a noteworthy league. MLS has done this by straining its modest budget through importing aging stars. All in part to really bring attention to the globe that MLS is a serious league. The most notable addition is evidently, Theirry Henry signing with New York Red Bulls last month. While it may look nice on paper for an MLS club to herald the arrival of a superstar, that specific club is going to need prove on the pitch that they're a top-class soccer club.
If the league, as well as its clubs, want to gain respect in the international world, they are going to need to excel, emphasize and take seriously in the CONCACAF Champions League, North America's top club competition.
Modeled after the UEFA Champions League, it's the "Gold Cup" for soccer club teams in North America that has been running under it's current format since the 2008-09 campaign. The competition, as well as previous continental competitions have been dominated by Mexican clubs. Last year's edition had the four Mexican-entrants all compose the competition's semifinal-round.
As for the four MLS clubs? Only one (Columbus Crew) even made it to the knockout stage, where they would fall to Mexican giants Toluca 5-4 on aggregate. Houston Dynamo and D.C. United would finish in third place in their respective groups, and not qualify for the knockout rounds, while Red Bull New York would not even reach the group stage, and lose in the preliminary play-in stage.
Granted, apart from the Crew, those three clubs were not the strongest MLS-ers a year ago, but they cannot take these games as a burden of extra games. It seems to be the reason why MLS teams have done so subpar in the past. The teams only care about one thing and one thing only: qualification into the MLS Cup play-offs, and winning the MLS Cup. It's a great title to behold, but the fact of the matter is this: winning the MLS Cup will only show the World you're the best club in the United States. Having the title saying you're the best club in North America is by far a much more eminent award.
It starts out with the MLS clubs needing to take the competition seriously, which seemed to look like it was going to happen with the Los Angeles Galaxy, but ultimately did not. Members of the LA Galaxy, including Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle emphasized how the strongest club in Major League Soccer should make a run deep into the tournament's knock out stages. However, it seemed like a laid back Galaxy squad as Donovan and Buddle had the MLS All-Star Game on their mind, rather than their preliminary qualifier against one of the worst USSF Division 2 clubs: the Puerto Rico Islanders...and would lose 5-3 on aggregate.
Now as the competitions group stages begin, reports on MLSSoccer.com talk about how the Galaxy members are relieved that there is six fewer games jammed into their schedule, so that they could focus on winning the Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup. Someone ought to remind them that either title will send them into the Group Stage of the Champions League.
Still though, this competition is the ultimate opportunity for MLS clubs to shine. We have two of our three strongest MLS clubs beginning group play this week (Real Salt Lake and the Columbus Crew) as well as Seattle Sounders FC and Toronto FC. All four of these clubs have a realistic chance of qualifying out of their group while RSL and Columbus have a decent possibility of winning their group and making it to the knockout stages.
While the likes of Cruz Azul, Santos Laguna, Toluca and Monterrey have the most likely odds of winning the competition, this is most likely the first Champions League in over a decade where we have MLS clubs that could seriously make a noise in the tournament. We'll just have to wait and see if the clubs take it seriously or even more seriously than the domestic honors.