CONCACAF keeping an eye on MLS dispute

STEVEN SANDOR, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:00 AM ET

If a work stoppage forces the Columbus Crew to forfeit its CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final date with Toluca of Mexico, the shame will be felt through the front offices of all 16 MLS franchises.

It will be impossible to erase the stain on MLS. It will be difficult to make amends with CONCACAF and the international broadcasters that are scheduled to show the tie, with the first leg scheduled for Crew Stadium March 9.

If the players' union makes good on its threats, and takes a strike position sometime after Thursday's Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiation deadline, the Crew may not have a team available to face Toluca.

The league and union did not meet Tuesday, after talks Monday went nowhere. Why would they? The union wants a new offer that includes some sort of free agency, while the league said it will only negotiate on points of the current offer . And it doesn't include free agency.

It's a massive change in mood over the last week. Remember, at the start of the month, Freddie Ljungberg — the second-biggest name in MLS after David Beckham — confirming that he would return to the league for a second season after he received assurances from the union and league that there would be no labour disruption?

Now the union is talking strike.

CONCACAF is watching the situation in regards to the Crew/Toluca game. CONCACAF has some penalties in its rulebook regarding forfeits, but none really cover a labour disruption. A committee would have to look at the issue.

“Obviously the situation regarding the MLS labor dispute and the CONCACAF Champions League is still evolving and therefore a little premature for any decisions,” said CONCACAF spokesman Ben Spencer. “To respond to the questions regarding sanctions, any sanctions would need to be decided on by a disciplinary committee.

“CONCACAF is following the labor negotiations very closely and has been in constant contact with Major League Soccer.”

While the CCL has yet to become a major TV draw here — heck, even when the Montreal Impact made its Cinderella run to the quarter-finals in 2008-09, it could only get its games on CBC Bold, and games are on U.S. specialty soccer channels — the tourney is a big deal in Mexico, as fans there revel in the fact that the rest of the leagues in the region are still nowhere as good as their own circuit.

Heck, I was in the press box for the Impact's 2009 quarter-final home leg against Santos Laguna at Olympic Stadium, and the amount of Mexican press was almost overwhelming.

Just as Europe's Champions League and South America's Copa Libertadores give us the platforms to compare the leagues against each other in those regions, MLS is judged internationally by how well it does in CCL. And the results have not been good. In 2008-09, MLS was humiliated, with Toronto FC failing to secure the Canadian berth in the tourney, and three of the four MLS entrants failing to make the quarter-finals.

Compare that to two teams from the former second-tier United Soccer Leagues — the Impact and the Puerto Rico Islanders, that made the quarters. The Islanders went onto the semis.

Last season, MLS commissioner Don Garber admitted he was frustrated by his league's lack of success in the Champions League, and even suggested that MLS would tweak the schedule to help the teams that do qualify for international competitions, as many MLS teams are forced to rotate their squads to meet the demands of international and domestic schedules — and they don't really have the roster sizes to do it effectively.

So the teams are often sending reserves to Central America. He desperately wants to see an MLS team win the CCL, and qualify for the Club World Cup. He thinks there would be no better advertisement for the league.

“I'd like to see our teams do better... It's important for us to win this tournament,” he said.

Despite Garber's urging, MLS teams fell again in 2009-10, with Toronto FC going out in the qualification round, as did New York. Both lost to teams from the Caribbean. Houston and D.C.

United did not make it out of the group stage. Only Columbus is left.

And if Columbus doesn't show up on March 9, no one outside of hardcore MLS fans will care about the union and league positions. All they will see is a forfeit. And, the international shame of MLS will be complete.


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