This is the third piece of a seven-part series highlighting the most intriguing subplots of the 2011 MLS campaign. Our first three MLS preview pieces are linked below:
5. Repeat after me: The CONCACAF Champions League matters. Now that we’ve settled that debate—is this the year MLS makes a championship breakthrough?
No, loyal readers—I am serious. This tournament matters. There are three fundamental arguments in support of the claim that the tournament matters and a breakthrough is essential. Let’s outline those before analyzing whether or not this is the year a breakthrough is imminent.
First, the most devastating argument. MLS is, like it or not, a league that is in the midst of an international fight for credibility and respectability. Each year the MLS fails to win the CONCACAF Champions League further entrenches the league’s inferiority complex and the (flawed, I believe) notion that the league will never become one of the world’s most competitive professional divisions. Perceptions change slowly, so continued deep elimination runs can earn the league an increasing amount of respect over time—but the quick fix is to field a team that wins the whole thing. This means a side that a) is of the quality to be able to win the competition, and b) (perhaps most importantly) takes the competition seriously enough to win it. The latter point, which I’ve isolated as possibly most important, seems to finally be turning a corner, as manager’s of sides entering the competition have become increasingly vocal about placing a premium on competitive success.
Second, and really this argument is an extension of the prior argument—winning breeds expectation and diminishes cynicism, both at home and abroad. There are plenty of domestic soccer writers and fans who think the CONCACAF Champion’s League is not particularly important. They cynically view the league as being far less important than league play and cite weakened sides in the competition in support of this view. A piece by a good writer, Kevin McCauley, at World Soccer Reader outlines this argument. I think this is an argument as to why the competition should be valued, rather than one deployed to prove why it should not. Why you ask? Quite simple. As I wrote last year after Real Salt Lake’s mystifying collapse in Mexico City left MLS still lacking a victory over a Mexican side on their soil: critics will be cynical. Every, or most, MLS victory away from the states is brushed aside with an “It’s about time” argument or a “the sides are weakened” argument or one of its variants. The only reply to those arguments is on-field excellence that is sustainable. That means winning; it means victories are even more important. Each MLS victory is a step, and it is better than the contrary option. Each MLS defeat creates conditions for an “I told you so” from that guy or gal at the pub who hadn’t really told you anything prior. With each defeat, those people begin talking, and act like they knew it all along. “I told you MLS couldn’t compete,” they say, and it matters not whether they told you that at all. When a MLS side blows a late lead in the CONCACAF Champions League, or falls to a “weakened side”, the loss is all the more brutal and monumental to the league’s reputation. As such, the “noise in the system” gets even louder. None of that is particularly fair, but it’s the reality of the situation.
Finally, there is the obvious argument. It’s a competition—plain and simple. You play to win the game, as Herm Edwards said so aptly. Every time you step on the field, professionalism, hunger and a desire to be as competitively excellent as you can possibly be demands that you play to win and strive for a championship-level of performance. That’s a big enough reason for MLS to care. And the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow—a berth in the FIFA World Club Cup, which is awarded to the CONCACAF Champion’s League winner—and would allow MLS to show and test its wares against the best clubs from Europe and elsewhere in the world. That’s a true measuring stick—and it is one MLS should want the opportunity to have very badly.
Now, is this the year for the breakthrough? In a word: maybe. Jason Kreis has done two things in the past week leading up to the first leg of tonight’s CONCACAF Champions League semifinal against the excellent Costa Rican side Saprissa that I like. First, he has scouted them thoroughly, openly acknowledging a greater amount of preparation than he had previously invested in the tournament. He says he feels like he has a handle on what Saprissa will try to do, particularly playing the first leg on the road (Tonight’s match is at the Rio Tinto in Sandy, Utah). Second, Kreis has a former Saprissa player to aid with his scouting report. While RSL forward Alvaro Saborio played under a different coach, there is some merit to the argument that he’ll have a feel for how Saprissa approaches large home matches and what their personnel is capable of tactically. These small built-in advantages at the very least are things Saprissa can’t claim in relation to Real Salt Lake.
Beyond Kreis, there is an edge to Real as an organization that echoes my sentiments about the importance of the semifinal and of MLS finally being able to win the competition. A melee nearly/halfheartedly broke out in Real’s final preseason match last week against Sporting Kansas City when Omar Bravo (intentionally/unintentionally) kicked Real playmaker Javier Morales in the head. Real responded aggressively, but was ready to move on after the whistle—citing more important things on the horizon. As General Manager Garth Lagerwey pointed out:
“We have much more important things to worry about: the CCL First Semifinal leg”, and of course “a road trip to San Jose this weekend to start league play, and then a home opener against the Galaxy a week from Saturday. We played our reserves the next day and everything was fine, so we just shook hands and moved on.” He’s right—the CCL is more important than a pre-match scuffle. It’s nice to see an MLS side (perhaps finally) see it that way. Now if we can just get fans and supporter’s groups to follow suit.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief of the Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.