Wouldn’t it be just swell if D.C. United or Montreal, now halfway through their respective CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series, could actually advance and eventually win the thing?
Generally speaking, an MLS supporter wants to see MLS teams prosper in CONCACAF Champions League – even if that means holding their nose and rooting for rival clubs.
It’s about league pride. And in the case of American soccer, it is because most of us are invested in the sport’s growth. We’d all like to see greater overall support, more media exposure, more cultural relevancy, etc.
Should D.C. United or Montreal advance and eventually claim the whole shebang, they’ll grab that coveted FIFA Club World Cup spot, one that has so far eluded MLS clubs. Yes, that kind of breakthrough would be boost league pride.
But let’s not kid ourselves about this being a game-changer for real league growth or success. Sorry, but it’s just not – even if it sometimes gets painted that way.
If D.C. United or Montreal were to make the breakthrough, it would be huge news inside the subculture of rabid MLS fans. Same goes for success by the L.A. Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake and Vancouver, who join United as qualifiers for the tournament’s next group stage (which begins this summer).
But in terms of truly moving the needle for MLS success, a breakthrough placement in the FIFA Club World Cup would be far more “tremor” than “major earthquake.”
The hard truth is that MLS needs to add casual sports fans and soccer watchers who dote on EPL or other leagues in order to add more mass appeal. Too many of those fans have no idea about (and certainly no interest in) CONCACAF Champions League. They wouldn’t know CCL from CiCi’s Pizza.
Now, adding another team in the eminent New York market, as MLS just did? That has far-reaching impact.
The ongoing MLS stadium initiative (now 15 and counting)? Each one provides a significant, important push toward greater overall financial stability.
Lucrative, new TV contract, like the one that kicks in March 6 and pays the league about $90 million annually? Yep. That’s a race car that will run and run and run.
But getting a team to an odd duck of a FIFA tournament that most of us ignore? Real Salt Lake came closest, falling in the 2011 final and thus missing a trip into the FIFA Club World Cup. Obviously, we all remember who won that year. And where it was played. Don’t we?
No, probably not.
We sometimes talk about a trip to the FIFA Club World Cup “establishing legitimacy.” Honestly, I’m not sure that that means. I do know that we’d all have to squint really hard to see how “establishing legitimacy” would truly push MLS forward. In fact, if we started listing elements that might truly move the needle for Major League Soccer, “prosperity in CONCACAF Champions League” would fall way, way down the list.
Not necessarily in this order, Major League Soccer’s ongoing drive for progress would be assisted by:
– The next truly game-changer player signing. Think “David Beckham,” while understanding that the Lampards, Kakas, Dempseys, etc., are certainly great to have, and collectively enhance the marketing muscle and the product. But for a singular figure to move the needle, his name needs to be “Ronaldo” or “Messi” or something very close to it.
– A bigger national footprint; even with 20 teams this year and 22 ready to rock’n roll by 2017, there are still too many swaths of the United States where MLS remains just a rumor. Consider that 17 of the top 30 U.S. TV markets (by size) are not MLS cities.
– Related to the item above, TV ratings remain modest. Viewership on ESPN2 and NBCSN were up in 2014, but still nothing to shout about. Games on ESPN2 averaged 225,000; matches on NBCSN averaged 142,000. Consider that Premier League contests on NBCSN average more than 400,000 viewers, while NHL contests hover around 340,000 on average.
– The stadium situation has improved remarkably over 10 years. As the 2005 season kicked off, just three clubs had facilities to call their own. Today that number has reached 15. Still, the work on MLS grounds is never done, because nothing does more to develop brand, legacy and legitimacy than some dedicated brick and mortar. D.C. United seems finally on its way, although nothing is certain until shovels go in the ground. New England is next on the “must do it” list. Elsewhere, “improvement” or “expansion” is now on the docket.
Along with the drip effect of ongoing improvement in player quality and refereeing know-how, these are the elements that improve MLS, the mighty sledge hammers that get things moving. Everything else is just a smaller tool, a pair of pliers or a screw driver, something to help with adjustments or to slowly, incrementally push things forward inches at a time.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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