Bringing Back New England's Favorite Competition: The North American SuperLiga

An iPhone picture of the Revolution's 2008 SuperLiga Championship banner in Gillette Stadium during the Colts-Patriots NFL Playoff game on Jan. 11, 2014 - Judy Catanese

The glory days of SuperLiga are long gone, but the tournament's short four-year history is fondly remembered in New England. With MLS based clubs struggling in the CONCACAF Champion's League, could the SuperLiga be a way to give more teams experience against regional clubs.

That has got to be the oddest banner to see in an NFL stadium. I mean, just look at that glorious photo above and just think about how odd looking that is to a non-Revolution fan.

I mean seriously, how many American football fans watching the Indianapolis Colts-New England Patriots and saw the banner that read "SuperLiga Champions 2008?" And of those few who noticed, how many tried to figure out what the SuperLiga was and when the Patriots won it?

Okay, I am serious now, because that trophy is probably one of the proudest and fondly remembered moments in New England Revolution history. The 2008 SuperLiga title, won on penalties against MLS Cup nemesis - the Houston Dynamo, marks the only time in the four-year history of the North American SuperLiga that the title was won by an MLS club. And it's the only other piece of silverware the Revs have won ever, along with their 2007 US Open Cup title.

And New England loves that SuperLiga title. Or at least I do. Because Matt Reis stonewalling Corey Ashe in front of The Fort arguable remains one of the greatest moments in franchise history. And for a team that was so successful for many years, the Revs have very little silverware to show for the Nicol/Twellman era. And being the last MLS team to win an regional club trophy doesn't hurt either.

Because at the very least, I can say for a fact that the Revolution are the most successful MLS team in the history of the SuperLiga. Because it's true. All three times the Revs qualified for the SuperLiga (2007's initial tournament was invitation only...more on this in a bit), the Revs won their group every year with a combined 7W-0L-2D record. With three appearances in the knockout round semi-finals, two finals appearances and one title, you can make the argument that the Revs are the most successful SuperLiga team period.

But I digress, because as much as I love reminiscing on the good old days, I've want to look into just how feasible it would be to restart this little tournament. I would call it CONCACAF's version of the UEFA Europa League except that only MLS and Liga MX participated in it so it was really a North American Football Union (NAFU) event (sub-region of CONCACAF that is USA, Mexico and Canada) sanctioned by CONCACAF.

When SuperLiga started, it was by invitation only to 8 of the most historic MLS and Liga MX teams, so naturally Los Angeles Galaxy, D.C. United, Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas were invited along with Morelia, Pachuca, America and Guadalajara. Dallas was the defending Western Conference champion and runners up for the 2006 MLS Supporters Shield and Houston was the 2006 MLS Cup champion. LA and DC of course were the two most prominent franchises historically, with a combined six MLS Cups and five Supporter's Shields between them.

But why the tournament was started is slightly less clear, because there are two major theories working here. The first was to give David Beckham, who joined LA just two weeks before the start of the 2007 SuperLiga, games against higher profile, international club teams. The other was that MLS and Liga MX wanted CONCACAF to change the format for CONCACAF's Champions Cup, the precursor to the CONCACAF Champions League.

Now perhaps the attendance of the original SuperLiga left a lot to be desired, with most games drawing less than 10,000 fans during the tournament's four year run. Probably a main reason of why it was eventually stopped. But that does mean the tournament didn't accomplish it's original goal.

That's because the old format of the Champion's Cup was largely broken. It featured only eight teams in a two-leg knockout style competition. The winners of the Liga MX Apertura and Clasura seasons with the MLS Cup and Supporter's Shield winners joined three Central American and Caribbean club, making four of the eight teams from either the US or Mexico. When this format started at the creation of MLS, it eliminated the berth for the U.S. Open Cup champions, something that was corrected with the switch to the current Champions League format.

So in the four years of the SuperLiga what was accomplished? Well, Don Garber himself said that the "SuperLiga was a great tournament which served its purpose during its time. CONCACAF got more and more committed to a continental tournament with the Champions League, which we're very supportive of. It has delivered the value we intended in SuperLiga to put our teams against the best competition in this region." That's a pretty telling quote from the MLS Commissioner about how poorly the CCL was perceived just a few years ago. Also puts more stock into that second theory that MLS wasn't really happy with the old Champion's Cup format.

But after a short hiatus, should the SuperLiga make a comeback? As it stands only four US clubs and one Canadian club (via the Canadian Club Championship) makes it to the CONCACAF Champion's League and the overall success of MLS in the CCL has been less than stellar. Yes, Real Salt Lake made a run to the final in 2011 and while Toronto FC, LA Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders have all made semi-final runs in the last two years, but that hasn't changed the fact that a Mexican Club has won CONCACAF's club championship every year since 2006. The last non-Mexican teams to win were Costa Rican clubs Alajuelense and Sparissa in 2004 and 2005 respectively. The last American clubs to win were DC in 1998 and LA in 2000. In the Champions League era (since the 2008-9 tournament), Mexican clubs have reached the semifinals a total of 14 times out a possible 20 and the finals 9 out 10 times. Meaning that 70% of all teams reaching the semis and 90% of teams reaching the finals are from Mexico.

So I'm all for changing that number, and the SuperLiga might be best way to accomplish that goal. By bringing back the SuperLiga, you can give more MLS teams a chance to gain experience against Mexican and regional clubs. One of the reasons I think a club like Monterrey is so good in the CCL is because they're always there. The three time defending CCL champions have a lot of experience on the regional stage and it's difficult for MLS teams to gain that with the current qualification rules.

By only allowing berths to the MLS Cup winners and runners-up, along with the Supporter's Shield and US Open Cup holders, it put less of an emphasis on the regular season. MLS has recently changed that by giving berths to the MLS Cup winners and the regular season Eastern and Western Conference champions. Which I think is a good thing, it rewards clubs who had good regular seasons and didn't get hot in November. Also, it's how the rest of the world largely qualifies itself for continental/regional club tournaments but then the rest of the world doesn't have playoffs to decide it's champion either. We're special in North America.

The four best teams from the MLS regular season not already in the CCL qualify just like in the 2010 tournament and they'll be matched up against...the four best Mexican clubs not already in the CCL or CONEMBOL's Copa Libertadores.

Hmm, it seems my brilliant idea has hit a snag. Because after Mexico's four bids to the CCL get filled, three teams are invited to participate in CONEMBOL's club championship as well. So that means that MLS Playoff teams would be largely squaring off against teams from the mid table of Liga MX. So how much experience could MLS sides gain by playing the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th best teams in Mexico? Plenty, and I'm sure that those LigaMX sides would want the experience as well for the jump to the Copa Libertadores and CCL if they make it.

I still think it's worth it, MLS teams just can't get enough experience on a regional level at the moment. Because of the parody in MLS it's difficult for teams to maintain CCL status. Only Sporting KC will make back-to-back appearances in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 tournaments by virtue of their 2012 US Open Cup and 2013 MLS Cup titles. Having a second regional tournament would allow teams that consistently have good records and make the MLS Playoffs a chance at games at a regional level. The top four teams from MLS not in the 2014-15 CCL are Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy and the New England Revolution (winning the 4-way tie on 51 pts with GD naturally).

Returning to the old format of just a single game round-robin and knockout stages wouldn't add nearly as many games to congest the schedule like a two-legged fixture would. Under the old rules, all the games were played in MLS stadiums but I think splitting the home dates between Mexico and the US or Canada would at least give MLS teams a taste of what the travel and atmosphere is like on the road in CCL games.

And the rebooted SuperLiga doesn't have to be limited to North America. I could be mirrored to be a full field, secondary tournament just like the Europe League is for UEFA. Adding more spots for a tournament field of 16-20 teams (4 groups of 4-5 teams each) would give more of an opportunity to Central American and Carribbean clubs as well. I'd prefer a format where the group stages have five teams for a two road, two home game system but I'm just throwing out ideas here.

But right now, this is only a figment of my imagination. There is no 2015 SuperLiga because of reasons that I'm sure come down to financials, lack of interest and fixture congestion. Because it's already too difficult apparently to play one game a week and play the reserves for that pesky midweek US Open Cup game. I think the return of the SuperLiga would be an opportunity to give more players significant minutes in meaningful games, allowing coaches to rotate their squads either in league play or in the cup competitions.

I'd love to see more MLS teams take competitions like the US Open Cup and the CCL seriously, by putting first team lineups out and maybe sacrificing a league game here or there to give first team regulars rest and the reserves a chance to play. As it stands, it's the opposite: Teams are more likely to sacrifice the club competition for the safety of a higher finish in MLS.

And again, this is just an idea and while I think it's a good one it doesn't mean that it actually is.

So until the day when New England is called to defend its title as "Best SuperLiga Team Ever," I'm going to stare at that banner in Gillette Stadium with pride.

Cause it's the only one in the United States and nothing in the short term, or possibly ever, is going to change that.

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