For what seems like forever, depth -- or the lack of it -- has been the bane of MLS teams' existence in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Sure, the tournament calendar does MLS sides no favors, given that they are barely into their campaigns while their opponents are in midseason mode. But it is the inability to build a deep roster that ultimately does MLS teams in. When injuries, suspensions or simple fatigue strike, Liga MX sides have a much deeper well from which to draw, and that is borne out in the results. In 30 encounters involving two legs over the past 17 years, MLS teams have prevailed just three times, the last being the Seattle Sounders' triumph over Tigres in 2013.
Combatting this inequity has seen MLS organizations take differing approaches to roster building. Some teams like Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders have relied heavily on the influx of targeted allocation money, or TAM, to build their squads. Others, like the New York Red Bulls, have relied more on their academy and reserve-team products to fill out some roster spots both in the first XI and beyond.
It was that latter approach that was on display Tuesday night, and it yielded a historic result. New York prevailed 2-0 over Club Tijuana, becoming the first MLS side to beat a Liga MX opponent on the road during the knockout stages of the tournament. And over the course of the night, the Red Bulls had seven performers get playing time who were either homegrown players (Tyler Adams, Derrick Etienne, Connor Lade, Alex Muyl and Sean Davis) or products of the reserve team (Aaron Long, Florian Valot).
It was Valot who set up Bradley Wright-Phillips' second goal of the night after coming on for the injured Marc Rzatkowski, while both Davis and Adams were excellent in midfield.
The extent to which this approach is sustainable will be revealed in the second leg on Tuesday at Red Bull Arena, and perhaps beyond. With Davis suspended for yellow card accumulation and Rzatkowski an injury doubt, manager Jesse Marsch will have to dig even deeper into his roster, though recent young DP signing Kaku isn't a bad option. They'll also need to deliver a much-improved performance, as it took an otherworldly display from goalkeeper Luis Robles -- as well as some clinical finishing from Wright-Phillips -- to prevent Xolos from traveling to New York on level terms, or perhaps with a lead. It's nonetheless encouraging to see so many products from the Red Bulls' internal player pipeline make contributions to what is an impressive win.
Wednesday's matches involving Toronto against Tigres and Seattle against Chivas will provide additional data to determine how much the TAM approach has matured.
It was back in 2015 that MLS first introduced TAM. At the time, the addition of $800,000 in TAM amounted to a 22.2 percent increase in the salary cap of $3.6 million. Since then, the amount of TAM has increased to $1.2 million a year, with another $2.8 million in discretionary (read: non-tradeable) TAM on top of that. The salary budget has since increased to $4,000,035. Given that players on a team's supplemental and reserve roster (effectively players 21-30 on a given team) don't count against the salary budget, the effective cap of what teams can spend is $8.6 million. Now teams not only have more money to spend, but it also enables them to keep more of their core intact from season to season.
A team's payroll can then skyrocket depending on how much it chooses to spend on designated players. In September, according to data provided by the MLS Players Union, the payroll of Toronto was more than $20 million, while Seattle's was $11.8 million.
Comparing that to their Liga MX opponents requires plenty of guesswork, as salary data for Liga MX players isn't released. In an interview in 2012, then-Seattle-manager Sigi Schmid estimated that his team's payroll was about "25 to 30 percent" of Santos Laguna, which back then would have put the Liga MX side at between $15 million and $20 million. Without question, Liga MX teams haven't stood still in terms of payroll in the past six years, but it's clear that MLS in general, and teams like Toronto and Seattle in particular, have closed the spending gap.
The addition of TAM, and the subsequent increase in spending league-wide, has made MLS sides deeper and allowed them to improve the quality of players for roster spots 4 through 11. It's what allowed TFC to go out this offseason and bring in a defender with the pedigree of Gregory van der Wiel as well as Spanish midfielder Ager Aketxe. Seattle used the same mechanism to nab Norwegian attacker Magnus Wolff Eikrem.
Will it be enough? What is known about Liga MX salaries is that, unlike MLS, there tends to be less of a gap between the top and bottom earners. This makes for more players closer to the average salary, and a deeper roster. For that reason, it's clear the talent gap hasn't been bridged, but MLS sides are getting closer. Toronto was hailed for its depth last year and looks able to compete in this area. Seattle isn't quite as deep, especially with forward Jordan Morris shelved by an ACL tear, but it has options.
The next week will provide more information in terms of just how much MLS teams have caught up, and how effective the different approaches to roster building have been.