Heading into the CONCACAF Champions’ League Final, nearly every soccer pundit counted out the Montreal Impact. The Impact came in dead last in MLS last season and qualified for the Champions’ League through the Voyageurs Cup, a knockout tournament that crowns a de facto champion of Canadian soccer.
They put all their eggs in the CCL basket, rescheduling MLS games, organizing preseason and pre-match training throughout Mexico and Central America, in hopes of progressing towards a final. With two narrow victories in the playoffs, advancing on away goals, the Impact somehow found themselves in a continental championship against Club America, the Liga MX club that many consider the best in Mexico.
Montreal would be tasked not just with beating America, but doing so in front of 60,000 screaming fans at the vaunted Azteca before the Impact could land on their safe Canadian soil. Despite the tough task ahead of them and a world of doubters, the Impact took on their clash with America mightily, securing a 1-1 draw, and needing just a 0-0 draw at home to secure a continental championship and a berth in the Club World Cup.
The result they got was far from ideal.
In front of over 60,000 rabid Impact fans in Olympic Stadium last night, the Montreal Impact managed a 4-2 loss against America, handing the Liga MX side their sixth continental championship. Unlike their underdog performance in Azteca, Montreal looked relatively pedestrian in the home leg of the final, with one glaring issue demonstrating the reason why MLS cannot hope to win a continental championship under the current CBA: depth.
Evan Bush, the Montreal goalkeeper who made a heroic performance in Mexico City, was ruled out for the second leg after receiving a late yellow card in the first leg, leaving Montreal without a goalkeeper eligible for the CCL. Thus, the Impact were forced to grab Kristian Nicht, the starting keeper for Indy Eleven in NASL, on loan for the biggest game in the club’s history. Additionally, Montreal captain Nigel Reo-Coker, a traditional midfielder, was forced into a right back position due to injuries, which ended up being a massive liability as the game went on. With all the holes on Montreal’s defense, it’s no surprise they gave up four goals in the home leg of the final.
Ultimately, this final should serve as a wake up call to MLS. The Impact qualified for the CCL apart from the league, and completely ignored the MLS season in order to progress in the Champions’ League. That’s bad for business. When everyone in the league is sitting at between six and nine games played, while Montreal sits at four, that represents a disconnect between the club and the league that based on single-entity structure, technically owns the team. MLS can’t let it’s own club utilize a different competition as a jumpstart to grander dreams. It’s bad for MLS, and thus, bad for American soccer.
There’s only one remedy for this in the MLS, and it’s very simple: raise the salary cap. Without more money to pay players, MLS sides will never be able to compete on the world’s stage or as Don Garber says become one of the best leagues in the world without the depth to compete in two tournaments at once. With the league, the domestic cup and the Champions’ League, MLS teams have three competitions that are legitimately worth caring about, but with a salary cap as low as it is, they have no hope in competing for all three. As has been the case since the league’s inception, without more money, MLS will fail to compete against most leagues in the world.