By Patrick MacDonald
It’s funny how often we can get ahead of ourselves. The common refrain among many soccer supporters in the United States is that if an MLS squad made it to the FIFA Club World Cup, it would put the league on the international map. However, there’s one key detail that everyone commonly looks past; MLS barely matters in CONCACAF. MLS routinely washes out of the CONCACAF Champions League, relegating it to playing a distant second fiddle to Liga MX.
Before anyone talks about the FIFA Club World Cup, MLS needs to establish itself regionally first. Winning Champions League will do just that. Not only will MLS validate itself, but it will validate the CONCACAF Champions League as well.
On the world stage, the CONCACAF Champions League ranks well behind other regional club competitions. The key component across the world is the relative parity amongst the top teams. Imagine a UEFA Champions League where Barcelona and Madrid played each other every year in the final. The competition would lose it’s luster very quickly.
Three different countries have won the UEFA Champions League in the last 5 years. Three different countries won the CAF Champions League in the last 5 years. Same with the AFC Champions League, and same with CONCACAF’s nearest geographic rival, the Copa Libertadores in South America.
Competition breeds interest. The apathy in CONCACAF has never been more obvious.
Sure, we all write articles or hop on twitter and routinely talk about the importance of Champion’s League and how prestigious the tournament is, but doesn’t it get just a tad bit harder to muster such bravado when one turns on the TV and sees nothing but empty stadiums? U.S. Open Cup attendances leave the CCL envious.
So far, attendance has been below 1000 more often than it’s been above 10,000. And before we just pin the bad attendance on Central American and Caribbean teams, take into consideration that L.A., Seattle, and Toronto, three of the strongest fan bases in MLS, are all responsible for home matches attended by under 10,000 people.
We put on a smile and state publicly that Champions League matters, but when it comes to actually going to games, we respond with a resounding “no it doesn’t.”
Why is that? Don’t Americans (and Canadians) want to be known as a strong league not only in CONCACAF, but in the world? Yes, probably, but it all comes back to competition. MLS fans are well aware of how high the odds are stacked against them. To win Champions League, MLS has to do so with an out of form squad in the early days of it’s season, right when Mexican squads are racing to the finish line of their Clausura tournament.
The story remains the same every season. MLS advances, until it hits that brick wall known as Liga MX. For CCL to matter, MLS needs it’s Columbus 2001 moment where they can permanently even the playing field.
The day the MLS breaks this pattern will come sooner probably than later. Hey, Real Salt Lake, who is currently in the Champions League, came very close to knocking off Monterrey in 2011. When that day comes, everyone across CONCACAF will start to take the league more seriously. The regional brand of MLS will increase and fans will start to attend games. Once that all happens, then maybe we can turn our attention to Club World Cup and international recognition. But come on people, one step at a time.