DC United v Tauro example of problems faced
26 September ~ "Road to FIFA Club World Cup" reads one of the ad hoardings in DC United's Robert F Kennedy Stadium. This is a useful reminder to the tiny crowd that has made the effort to come out on a wet, autumnal night for a Concacaf Champions League group game against Tauro FC of Panama. If it weren't for this potential goal of a December 2015 date in Tokyo against the likes of Barcelona or Bayern Munich, then a reasonable question would be: "What's the point?"
I've a soft spot for competitions that are struggling with their identity. I still love the League Cup, even though part of me knows that it should be laid to rest. I'm prone to immersing myself in the short histories of the Watneys, the Texaco or the Anglo-Italian Cup just to reassure myself that they ever really existed. There's something alluring about the folly of failed or failing tournaments played out in front of the curious, the hardcore and those with the morbid expectancy of something gratifyingly mediocre to moan about. And come on, how often do you get to see a club team from Panama? Tonight is a collector's item, of sorts.
Not that the Concacaf Champions League is necessarily failing, as it's existed in one form or another since 1962. It's just nowhere close to being what it wants to be, which is a showcase for the cream of north and central American club football, and a respected younger brother of the Copa Libertadores and the Champions League. It's not helped by the fact that Mexican clubs also qualify for the far superior Copa, and that for MLS teams, the approaching domestic play-offs are of far greater importance than the CCL group stages.
For the few DC United fans who bother showing up, this means watching a mainly second string team playing nervous, "impress-the-boss" football against a technically limited opponent. United themselves hardly count as champions – they qualified for the CCL after winning the US Open Cup in 2013, the same year they posted the worst league record in MLS history with just three wins. But the loose use of the term "champions" has long since been Uefa-stamped, so it's good enough for a minor confederation such as Concacaf.
DC's other opponent in the three-team group are Waterhouse FC of Jamaica. United has already beaten them twice, and Tauro has already lost to Waterhouse twice, so a point tonight will be enough to see United through to next spring's quarter-finals with a game to spare. The saving grace of the CCL is that a place in the last eight – with a hoped-for tie against a Mexican side – would bring in fans, cash, and some genuine interest. In fact the mercifully streamlined group stage (eight groups of three, with the top team qualifying for the quarter-final) seems designed to pare the competition down to exactly that: MLS v Mexico, with a Costa Rican team or two thrown in for good measure.
After a tepid first half punctuated with wholly unexpected shots against the crossbar at either end, it's the bigger names that ease United in front just after half-time. Newly signed Ghanaian defender Samuel Inkoom, who looks vaguely insulted at being picked for such a minor game, crosses for Chris Pontius – a first-choice player recovering from injury – to head DC into the lead. A few minutes later second-half sub Ed Johnson, a failure at Fulham and a disputed absentee from Jürgen Klinsmann's World Cup squad, scores a nice second goal from a give-and-go, and then the game reverts to its earlier torpor. You'd see more edge at a Tufty Club kick-around.
The only thing that would see Concacaf turn the pre-knockout stages of the CCL into a crowd-pleasing money spinner would be a political and economic turnaround across Central America. The clubs in football-obsessed nations such as Guatemala or El Salvador might then boast the resources to nurture and develop better players, and to keep the standouts from moving abroad.
In the meantime, results like tonight's easy victory for the DC stiffs, or Bayamon FC of Puerto Rico's 10-1 loss at home to América of Mexico, reflect the extent of the talent gap. The hope must be that in ten, 20 or 30 years time the Concacaf Champions League will have become at least a measured success in a more stable, equitable world. Ian Plenderleith