So far in our Metrics Cup battle between the MLS and the A-League we have compared attendances and TV ratings/money. The Aleague thanks to its superior results in the TV stage holds a slender lead over the North American competition. In this piece we will look at where it really matters, performance on the pitch. This is a difficult thing to judge because quality is – as much as we hate to admit it – a subjective argument, so we will look purely at results in international competition, in particular the Champions League.
The A-League teams compete in the AFC Champions League and have been doing so since the 2007 edition when Adelaide United and Sydney FC were the two representatives. Neither got out of the group that first year with only the winners of each group progressing.
The very next year Adelaide returned to the competition, this time with Melbourne Victory. United surprised every one by topping their group and going all the way to the final which they lost to Japanese side Gamba Osaka. 2012 and 2014 the A-League had 3 representatives but typically they have been given only 2 automatic spots in the group stage, an exception was in 2014 when they were given 1 and a half spots that saw Brisbane Roar fail to qualify via a one off game against Thai opposition in which they gave up their home ground advantage.
Since the A-League has been participating, 6 out of 20 teams have gotten out of the group stage against mostly Chinese, Korean, and Japanese opposition. In 2012, Adelaide United reached the quarter finals, in 2008 as mentioned above United were runners up, and in 2014 Western Sydney Wanderers who only came into existence in 2012 won the competition.
United State’s clubs have been competing in the CONCACAF version of the Champion’s League since 1963. Two wins and two runners-up finishes (one runner up was a Canadian MLS team, Montreal Impact in 2015) put the US in 8th position on the all-time list of performance in the competition behind Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Suriname, Guatemala, Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago. However it is the period since the inception of the MLS which we will focus on.
Before 2008 the Champions Cup, as it was called, was a knockout competition in the traditional cup format. during this time the MLS clubs won the competition twice (DC United in 1998 and LA Galaxy in 2000) and have been runners up once (LA Galaxy in 1997). The quick success achieved by the MLS teams is comparable to that of the A-League if not more impressive. Between 2004 and 2008, 8 teams took part with the US and Mexico given two spots each.
In 2008, the introduction of a more familiar league format for this type of competition came into effect. It saw the US and Mexico granted 4 spots each and Canada 1 in the North American zone and overall 24 teams from CONCACAF took part. Interestingly enough the Canadian team can be chosen from the best performing MLS side which means the league can actually have 5 representatives.
Since the format change, the MLS teams have yet to win but have been runners up twice (Real Salt Lake in 2011 and Montreal Impact in 2015). In the most recent edition, the four Liga MX qualifiers knocked out the four MLS qualifiers in the quarter finals. All together since MLS participation in 1997, the MLS has won twice and been runner up three times.
Arguably the AFC Champions League is a more difficult competition for the A-League clubs to win than the CONCACAF is for the MLS clubs. This is entering subjective territory but one could make a compelling case that the Japanese, Korean and Chinese teams are stronger teams in more competitive leagues than the teams the MLS face in their group stage.
In the group stage, the Liga MX and MLS sides are separated until the quarter final stage, so they only face sides from leagues in countries such as Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago, and Panama. The AFC being split into East and West Asian zones sees Australian teams usually grouped with teams in all three of the major leagues in East Asia at the group stage and even in the qualifying playoff.
Restrictions such as a salary cap combined with having to adhere to the 3 plus one rule makes it much more difficult for Australian teams to match their free spending rivals in Asia. Clubs in China, Korea, and Japan have to also adhere to 3 + 1 but can in theory pay as much as it takes to retain their best local players as well as spend anything on foreign players which is an option A-League teams don’t have. As it stands A-League teams can’t even prevent their best Australian players from leaving to continental rivals.
MLS also have a salary cap although with three designated players, target allocated money, and various conditions depending on player statuses it is a loose one. Where the big difference is though is the lack of restrictions on foreign players. There is no specific limit per team for foreign players and this extends to the Champions League which puts them on a more equal footing with their CONCACAF counterparts. The other teams that compete in the CONCACAF Champions League don’t have specific rules either against foreign players which would actually benefit the US clubs from the more enticing MLS with only Liga MX clubs being able to compete with wages.
The only opportunity we get to see CONCACAF vs AFC clubs in meaningful competition is the Club World Cup. The competition has existed since 2000 but has not had any US participants so far although LA Galaxy qualified for the 2001 edition that ultimately never took place. As for Australian teams, five have qualified and four taken part (Wollongong Wolves qualified for the cancelled 2001 tournament). Three of the clubs have been A-League sides with two qualifying as AFC representatives.
Overall, the AFC clubs have a better record than the CONCACAF sides but 9 of the tournaments have been held in Asia so often AFC have had two representatives (AFC champion/runner up, and host nation’s champion). Only twice has a non-European/South American side been runner-up and both times were African sides. Asian teams have been third 5 times and CONCACAF teams have been third 3 times.
Given the respective circumstances of MLS and Aleague sides it would be fair to say that the Australian league has performed better on the international stage in competitive fixtures. As mentioned earlier, the most recent Champions’ League saw all four MLS sides knocked out by Liga MX teams; while Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC sit 2nd and 1st in their groups after three rounds. Total records though are similar with the 20 year old MLS having two wins and three runner ups (one being the Canadian entrant) whereas the 11 year old Aleague has one win and one runner up spot.
So the Aleague just pips the MLS by 1 goal to nil in performance on the pitch giving it a comfortable lead in the Metrics Cup after attendance, TV, and on the pitch has been looked at.