CONCACAF Champions League: The Triumph of American Football

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It was a great night for Americans in the CONCACAF Champions League. Two teams from American leagues, that play in the United States or associated territories triumphed in Continental play.

DC United’s penalty shootout victory over Firpo demonstrated the resilience of the American player- new Red and Black signing; Danny Szetela played a key role in the extra time and shootout. United’s victory gave Major League Soccer one of its greatest recent triumphs- a victory (although officially a draw) in knock-out match on Central American soil.

It was also, from my personal sentimental standpoint, it is  good to see Benny Olsen, one of the titans of American soccer score a penalty kick goal in the shootout.

But it was the earlier match of the night which created the buzz around the blogosphere. USL-1 side Puerto Rico Islanders who boast more Americans playing key roles than their MLS opposition,  Toronto FC has on their entire roster held on for a 1-0 aggregate victory.

Despite the obvious fact that Puerto Rico has more Americans on its team, and far more home grown players (ie., players that went to college or played youth soccer in the US), a large percentage of the US Soccer supporting public appeared to be cheering for the team with fewer Americans, claiming in some way rooting for TFC, was a pro American soccer statement.

This is a triumph of MLS’ propaganda under Commissioner Don Garber. Garber’s success in marketing MLS has made many who support the league, consistently defensive about the league’s quality and virtues: Garber and Co. have made it such that if you attack MLS you are attacking American Soccer, even if the team representing MLS is Canadian and has few Americans playing important roles on it.

Some fans take this to the extreme, consistently claiming in the past few weeks on various message boards that Serie A side, Catania and EPL side, Hull City would finish in last place in MLS. The truth is, a strong likelihood exists that both would run away with MLS Cup. Furthermore, many fans equate support of MLS to blind loyalty to the league: touting the league’s success and ignoring its shortcomings, while also glossing over any contrary arguments as being made by “haters,” and “euro snobs” (I will admit, I often use the “euro snob” term myself).

Ironically, just hours before kickoff last night in Bayoman, Don Garber mocked USL as a “minor league” to Reuters’ Simon Evans, and referred to MLS as a “major league.” Of course, MLS is a “major league” because they call themselves Major League Soccer. But the record of the league in competitions not held entirely on US soil is spotty- An MLS team has only once reached the final of a competition off of US soil, and has never once won a two leg tie against a Mexican club.

At the same time, describing USL as a “minor league,” is insulting and shows that Garber still tries to equate American sporting terms to the world of football. The truth is, USL is much more than USL-1, the league we must assume Garber is mocking with in his “minor league” comments. A USL-1 club, however now has defeated an MLS club, in the first ever two leg home and home tie between representatives of the two leagues.

MLS is a professional sports league built on the American model. But USL is a league built on the structure of world football, even though it has some peculiarities like relegation/promotion based on economic factors and not performance, as well as a strange desire to accept and promote artificial turf (or rubber as we will from here forth refer to it on this site) in some of its stadiums.

USL is far bigger than USL-1. In fact, USL-1 may be the least critical component in the USL umbrella.

MLS has disbanded its reserve league and does not have a youth league, leaving MLS clubs interested in developing players or fielding reserve sides to do so within the USL umbrella. My colleague, Daniel Feuerstein penned an excellent report earlier this week on Red Bull’s triumph in the USL Super 20 league finals. This weekend the Chicago Fire will see their PDL team play in the finals of that league against Ventura County Fusion, a club that produced a player so outstanding in Anton Peterlin that he was signed by EPL club Everton earlier this summer.

The Super Y league helps to develop the future of American Soccer. Clubs across North America compete in the USL run Super Y league, and produce the type of young talent that MLS isn’t even monitoring. Some MLS clubs have now joined the USSF Youth Development Academy System (as have USL clubs in Miami and Richmond), but again this is being done outside the MLS structure, despite being undertaken by MLS clubs.

USL is undergoing a transition right now. Don Garber is correct in stating that. However, I am not at liberty to divulge the details of some of what I know currently, but discussions are in the works to make the USL structure stronger and more vibrant than ever: and perhaps more important to the American game than it already is.

In MLS’ struggle to marginalize the importance of USL at all levels, Garber and others have found an ally in some of the American soccer press. Often times, USL events, including final matches go unreported, and the previous PDL history of European club signings or national team players mysteriously disappears from bios that appear on soccer websites. In many cases, it is not the fault of the reporters but simply because they are being fed partial information or even in some cases, mis-information.

Yet, some MLS fans seem to constantly point out USL’s insignificance. The fact that we even enter discussion as to the quality of a FIFA sanctioned first division versus that of the USSF sanctioned 2nd/3rd/4th and youth divisions is troubling. This is more a sign of MLS’ weakness and its fans insecurity with the league’s success and alleged improvement than it is a  sign of USL’s strength.  The apt term to describe these fans is either “ignorant” of the levels of American soccer beyond just MLS, or even worse, “MLS-snobs”.

Supporting MLS is important for the continued growth of the game in this country. But MLS, as I am often reminded is a business- it is not a soccer charity. So in fact, it is in no way representative of the welfare of the game in the United States. Keeping a viable and healthy first division is important no doubt, but the rest of our soccer pyramid cannot be sacrificed, ridiculed, or marginalized because of the hubris of one league or the ego of one man.

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