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How competing in the Champions League affects MLS performance

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A look at how MLS teams have fared while competing in the CCL at the same time.

Monterrey  v Real Salt Lake Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

After winning the treble last season, much of the discussion surrounding Toronto FC this offseason has focused on its first appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) since 2012-13.

In the past, the CCL has been dominated by Mexican teams, with only one finalist (Montreal in 2014-15) and four semi-finalists from MLS in the past five years. Toronto, with as deep a roster as any MLS team in history, has a good chance of adding to that list.

But how will competing in the CCL affect MLS performance? It’s an important question to ask, as Toronto aims to repeat its regular season dominance.

Although the CCL format for this year is new, looking at how MLS teams performed in the past is the best way to predict how it might affect Toronto. The table below shows that competing in the CCL has negatively affected performance in MLS.

Over the past five iterations of the CCL, an MLS team has averaged four fewer points and finished 1.5 spots lower in their conference than the year before. However, the average is skewed by D.C. United’s 43-point improvement during the 2014 season. D.C. somehow qualified by wining the US Open Cup, despite only getting 16 points in MLS in 2013.

Since D.C.’s point increase was so unusual, the median performance is a more accurate indicator of how most teams’ point totals change. For MLS teams, the median is a loss of 7 points and 2 spots lower in their conference. Last season, 1st place and 7th place in the Western Conference were separated by 7 points. So, it can be the difference between missing the playoffs and having home-field advantage until at least the Conference Finals. That’s a huge difference and reflects both the parity of MLS and the difficulty that added games impose on MLS teams in the CCL.

Even teams that survive the first year in the CCL and qualify again tend to struggle the next season, with an average finish of 7.5 points and 2.5 spots lower, and a median finish of 8.5 points and 2.5 spots lower.

Maintaining a high level of performance in MLS while competing in the CCL has clearly been an issue for MLS teams. While Toronto is much better than the average MLS team that has competed in the CCL, they should not be overconfident and must recognize the negative effect playing in the CCL will likely have on their MLS regular season.

While the new CCL format eliminates the group stage, resulting in fewer games overall, fixture congestion will still be a significant concern if Toronto progresses past the Round of 16. Therefore, I don’t anticipate the elimination of group stage games to mitigate the negative effect on MLS performance.

The quarter finals will be played between March 6-8 and March 13-15. That would lead to four games in 15 days, with MLS games on March 3 (Columbus at home) and March 17 (away at Montreal).

Making it to the semi-finals would see the schedule get more crowded as Toronto would play 4 games in 12 days, with CCL games scheduled for April 3-5 and April 10-12. MLS games in those 12 days are on April 7 (DC United at home) and April 14 (away at Colorado).

Finally, if Toronto manages to beat the strong Mexican teams on its side of the bracket, it would play the two-legged finals on April 17-19 and April 24-26. Toronto would also have four games in 12 days at this stage, including April 21 (away at Houston) and April 28 (Chicago at home).

Making the final would be a great accomplishment for Toronto in its first season back in the CCL, but it would make for a brutal April with eight games in 26 days. Depth will be crucial at this point, considering the mid-week travel to and from Champions League games.

Overall, the negative effect on MLS teams playing in the CCL combined with the significant schedule congestion post-Round of 16 makes Toronto’s attempt to repeat its regular season dominance one of the toughest challenges the club has ever faced.

That being said, I’d be more than happy to give up a few regular season points if it means a trip to the CCL finals! After all, Toronto did win the league by 12 points last season.