Old times about to end
New competitions open international doors to MLS clubs
Published: Feb 02, 2023 05:27 PM
The Seattle Sounders celebrate their victory in the CONCACAF Champions League final match  in Seattle, Washington. File photo: AFP

The Seattle Sounders celebrate their victory in the CONCACAF Champions League final match in Seattle, Washington. File photo: AFP

The days when soccer clubs from the US and Canada were largely restricted to domestic competition, barely noticed by the rest of the world, are about to end.

When the Seattle Sounders take the field on Saturday in the Club World Cup, they will be 90 minutes away from a meeting, in official FIFA competition, with one of the greatest names in world soccer - Spanish giants Real Madrid.

The Sounders must beat the winners of the first round tie between Egypt's Al Ahly and New Zealand's Auckland City to make the clash with the 14-times European champions in Rabat, Morocco, a reality.

Not surprisingly the prospect of facing Carlo Ancelotti's star-studded European champions, has captured the imagination in the Pacific Northwest city.

"The players are excited for this. They love the fact that they have an opportunity to be on a world stage," said Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer in a statement.

The Sounders are in the competition as winners of the CONCACAF Champions League, until recently the only official international competition open to clubs from Major League Soccer.

It is the first time a US or Canadian team has played in the FIFA tournament for continental champions.

It is perhaps fitting that the Sounders are the ones to make history - in 2024 they will celebrate the 50th anniversary making them the oldest American club in MLS having played in the now defunct North American Soccer League (NASL) and other leagues before MLS debuted in 1996.

Changes to the league

MLS teams have been far from successful in regional competition, with the Sounders victory last season only the third time a club from the US or Canada has triumphed in the Mexican-dominated tournament.

But the volume of international fixtures for MLS clubs is about to significantly increase with the addition of two new competitions and changes to the Champions League.

In July, all MLS clubs will be involved in a new month-long 47-team, CONCACAF-sanctioned Leagues Cup, alongside teams from Mexico's Liga MX. The competition will be organized similar to a World Cup and feature a group stage before knockout fixtures.

The competition winners will go straight into the round of 16 of the newly expanded 27-team CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) with the runners-up and third-placed teams going into the first round.

The Champions League will also feature teams from the Caribbean, qualifying via a new Caribbean Cup and Central American clubs via their own sub-regional competition.

That tournament in turn, feeds into the Club World Cup where it is likely there will be more spaces available to CONCACAF clubs with FIFA's planned expansion from eight to 32 teams for the 2025 edition featuring clubs from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani has seen increased international competition as vital for the growth of the game in the region.

"This will elevate clubs and leagues from CONCACAF and provide even more compelling regional rivalries. It will also provide more international relevance to our club competitions, and a very competitive pathway as clubs strive to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup and succeed on the global stage," he said after announcing the changes.

If all those games aren't enough chances for MLS teams to test themselves against international opponents, last week Montagliani announced another competition.

Currently under the working title of 'Final Four,' the event will see two teams from CONCACAF take on two from the South American CONMEBOL region.

While the exact details have yet to be worked out, it is likely that the two finalists from the CONCACAF Champions League will play either the finalists of the Copa Libertadores or the champions of that tournament and the winners of the secondary Copa Sudamericana.

Whatever the final name or qualification route, it means a chance for American clubs to face off against the elite of South American soccer - if they can beat Mexican and other regional rivals first.

That tournament is slated to start in 2024 and people with knowledge of the discussions say it is possible that 2023's CONCACAF Champions League and South American competitions could already be used for the first route to the potentially lucrative games.

It all means that, in 2025, a team which was successful in the Leagues Cup, Champions League and qualified for the Club World Cup, could face as many as 22 official international games.

For clubs used to a domestic league with 34 regular season games before a short playoff campaign, it is a whole, new world.