By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - Major League Soccer clubs will look to make a mark on the international stage by challenging Mexico's domination of the regional CONCACAF Champions League with Real Salt Lake leading the charge for the United States.
Four MLS teams qualified for the 16-team group stage of the competition that starts August 17 and features top club teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Mexican teams have won the last five CONCACAF finals and since the switch from the old Cup format to the Champions League version both finals have been all-Mexican affairs, prompting MLS officials to urge their teams to make a push.
"We have got to win these games, we have got to win the Champions League and we have got to get our clubs playing toe to toe against the Mexicans and we have got to hope to some day be one of the best leagues, if not the best league, in the region," MLS commissioner Don Garber said last week.
MLS Cup winner Salt Lake and Columbus Crew, who had the best regular season record last term, were both given straight passes to the group stage while Toronto and Seattle Sounders made it through their qualifying games.
The L.A Galaxy, who are the most recent U.S. winners of the competition back in 2001 and the second MLS team to triumph in the tournament, were eliminated by the Puerto Rico Islanders.
Such has been the tournament's lack of impact in the United States that the Sounders and Salt Lake have been educating fans about the tournament through video and pamphlets.
"It's a huge priority I think probably first and foremost because it is our first time being in it. We are such a young club so it is a big opportunity for us to make a name for ourselves in the region and to continue to gain status and show we are a good team," Kreis told Reuters.
Kreis's career as a player and manager has been entirely in MLS and is relishing the chance to pit his wits against clubs such as eight-time Mexican champions and five-time CONCACAF winners Cruz Azul.
"Everyone is looking forward to it. As a young coach it is my first opportunity to be involved in meaningful international competition and only my second including my time as a player," he said.
GROWTH IN IMPORTANCE
Caribbean representatives Puerto Rico play in the U.S. second division but have ventured further in the competition than any of their first division rivals having made the last four just two years ago.
Puerto Rico coach Colin Clarke, a former Northern Ireland international, says there is no doubt about the tournament's growth in importance.
"We put a lot of value on CONCACAF, it is an opportunity to play other teams and bigger teams," he told Reuters.
"The tournament has taken off in the last couple of years - big prize at the end of it is very exciting. At first I didn't know what to expect but now a lot of people are now taking it a lot more seriously - it's a great tournament."
Clarke said he resents suggestions that the Galaxy's defeat to his team indicates they may have been under-valuing the tournament.
"I think they are taking it seriously - the result didn't go their way. It is like the FA Cup in England, you are going to get upsets and that is part of the appeal," he said.
"Our win shows a lot of the depth (in North American soccer) and we deserve some respect for what we have done."
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Frank Pingue)