As All Star week or whatever it is now called has dawned upon us some reflection is needed at MLS HQ as to what has evolved recently. Not only have incidents of hooliganism and fan violence erupted but also as mentioned earlier this week MLS sides are looking less and less like the products they were originally intended to be. Expanding beyond the talent pool in North America has made this a reality. For sometime now MLS has promoted itself as an emerging world power and a league that is possibly even the best in the region.
Mexican fans need not worry. The fear that Major League Soccer would have more teams in the CONCACAF Champions League inaugural tournament than the FMF has been thwarted. This fear was often repeated from south of the border as MLS last won a significant competitive match or two leg series against a Mexican side in 1998. That victory by DC United against Toluca in the CONCACAF Champions Cup final got a lengthy write up in World Soccer magazine and appeared to usher in an era of MLS dominance in North America. Ten years later MLS has won less than 50% of competitive matches against sides from the second division in Canada/USA known as USL. So much for regional dominance.
Tuesday night at BMO Field in Toronto this trend continued as the Montreal Impact won the inaugural Canadian Championship competition and advanced to the CONCACAF Champions League joining the Puerto Rico Islanders as USL-1 sides in the tournament. Toronto FC merely needed a victory at home and seemed destined for it when Rohan Ricketts scored an early goal, but Roberto Brown, discarded by the Colorado Rapids last year pulled the goal back for the Impact, and from that point on Montreal hunkered down and saved a draw. The draw was all Montreal needed to stay two points clear of TFC in the round robin cup standings and claim the Champions League birth.
MLS’ solution to this problem thus far has been to try and expand into USL markets and increase the number of foreign players allowed per team. But the side the Impact won the Canadian Championship with is largely home grown: Only four active players hail from outside the CONCACAF region and the club has been known for sometime as more or less a feeder team for the Canadian National Team.
As we saw with the debacle about naming the team in Seattle MLS feels its product and its brand reign supreme and any association be it symbolic or real with prior soccer clubs in a region is to be frowned upon. MLS instead of embracing the legacy and hard work of those who have built the game in this region seem to want to pretend as if they are responsible solely for the growth of the North American game. Rejecting any hint of association with the defunct North American Soccer League (whose very existence as one time success is the most significant reason Soccer became a major participatory sport in North America) MLS has begun to imitate the NASL in its behavior even though admittedly MLS is on much more solid business grounding and is also in an era where Soccer is better understood and more ingrained in the American psyche. Wouldn’t MLS and Soccer in this region be better off, if the league simply acknowledged its predecessors including clubs that existed for a long period of time outside of a first division and honor their legacy by embracing the club’s names and its practices?
As the game continues to grow in North America and MLS forces expansion right into USL-1 markets the league has some soul searching to do. As is the case with other supporters of the game in this country, I want MLS not only to succeed but thrive. I take a tremendous amount of pride in our MLS clubs success in international competitions and friendlies. However, you’d be hard pressed to find another first division in the world who has won less than 50% of its competitive matches with the same country/regions second division in a given season.
Winning Superliga would be a good first step towards regaining some lost respectability from MLS. The next step would then be to take a dose of humble pie and learn from USL, the defunct NASL and other entities in American and Canadian Soccer so that the MLS can be the North American super league we all dreamed years ago it would be. This dream is within grasp of MLS, but still oh so elusive.