2008 Pepsi MLS All-Star Game - West Ham United v MLS All-Stars

It’s not a new debate. In fact, it’s one of the oldest debates in world football. However, in Canada, fans and media are just now coming around to discuss it.

Since Canada didn’t have a separate national cup competition until six years ago, the debate about how to best balance league and cup competition has never been addressed. It has been now, with one high profile columnist for the Toronto Star, Cathal Kelly, lambasting the Amway Canadian Championship last week. Kelly called the event the most useless competition in Canadian sport and suggested that the teams didn’t really want to win it.

Understandably (and correctly) his column was attacked as being needlessly critical, inaccurate and provincial—it was written in such a way to make it seem like Canadian teams were unique in having to deal with the burden of parallel competitions. Additionally, anyone that saw the reaction of both players and fans last night in Montreal following the Impact’s 6-0 thrashing of TFC would instinctively understand that any notion of team’s not wanting to win is absurd.

It’s also unlikely that there will be many celebrations at TFC training today—extra running drills, perhaps, but no celebrations.

Few reading here need to understand this lesson, but it bears repeating: rotating a squad is not the same thing as not trying to win. The best clubs in the world take different approaches to different competitions and Canadian clubs should be no different. It should go without saying that a team can prioritize league play while at the same time giving younger/less used players a chance to prove themselves in the cup play.

That understanding also allows one to have a balanced discussion about whether a team has the right priorities. Should Montreal have dressed a mostly reserve side in the first leg against Toronto (with a win on Saturday and last night’s result the answer would seem to be yes)? Was Toronto right to let the kids mostly play in the cup this year (time will tell)?

Make no mistake, Toronto did not make the cup a priority this year. There had been rumblings since late last year that from top to bottom the organization understood that improving league play had to be priority No 1 in 2013 and, with that, a reluctant understanding that participation in the CONCACAF Champions League would make that more difficult.

To be very clear, saying that Toronto made the Canadian Championship a lesser aim in 2013 in no way justifies the 6-0 loss last night. Losing that heavily reflects poorly on the club and is a sign that the problems that have plagued TFC for years are far from being fixed. Put another way, Toronto likely loses yesterday even if they favoured the competition and they probably are bad in league play over the last four years even without CCL play.

But, CCL play made it worse—especially in 2010 when they were closer to a playoff spot than they were in 2011 or 2012. The disastrous start last year was at least partly because of the extra burden of playing four intense CCL games in a month. Evidence of the “CCL-effect” in MLS can be seen beyond Toronto. Of the four teams that have gone to the semi-finals or beyond in the last three seasons only one, this year’s Galaxy, the defending MLS Cup champions, have managed to play up to expectations in league play. Two of those four teams—Toronto and this year’s Seattle Sounders—were downright train wrecks in the league.
Which brings us back around to a point in Kelly’s article—is participating in the CCL worthwhile for MLS clubs? The answer isn’t as simple as many fans want to believe.

Yes, on a philosophical level, of course it is. If MLS wants to improve its standing in North America and the world it needs its teams competing internationally. Although the importance of the event is overstated by its fans, an appearance in the Club World Cup would be a significant step for the league.

The thing is the majority of MLS teams aren’t even close to good enough to compete against the top Mexican teams. Not when the Mexican teams put in a full effort, anyway. That fact essentially makes MLS CCL participation a mirage. They’re not really in the competition in a significant way, but participation in it does significantly put a drain on resources. Adding insult, participation in the tournament does very little to increase MLS teams’ profile in their home community. Few outside of the hardcore audience care—at all—about the tournament.

Over the last four years, Toronto has learned that lesson, which is why the club was more than happy to take a chance with younger players this time out. It’s hard to argue with their reasoning.