Steps toward overcoming skepticism

I write this on the morning of the day that LAFC meets up with Club Tigres UANL to see who will be the winner of the CONCACAF Champions League and go on to compete for the Club World Cup. I never pull for any team but my own, but, honestly, I wouldn’t have mind seeing LAFC win this thing.

Let’s be clear. I have never liked the mindset that leads college football fans to cheer “SEC! SEC! SEC!” as a sign of support for one of their rivals. Indeed, how on earth does a Georgia fan provide support for Alabama? I get it: you like your league but… ick.

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So, maybe I’m contradicting myself a little here. Although, to be clear: I am neither pulling for LAFC nor will I be shouting “MLS! MLS! MLS!” in my living room as the game plays. 

I simply believe there are some upsides to LAFC coming out victorious.

In an article published today, Charles Boehm of writes about the past futility of Major League Soccer teams when it has come to Concacaf Champions League. Over more than 12 years, 59 MLS teams have entered Champions League. Of that number, MLS has only 11 semifinalists and four finalists to show for it. No MLS team has ever won Champions League. (Yes, I realize that two MLS teams won the tournament that preceded this one).

It seems like a hurdle “we” need to get over; one that, I believe, an MLS team is poised to get over.

On the one hand, I want to say, “Well, LAFC deserves praise for getting even this far. Not only are they playing in the bizarre COVID world that disrupted their league play as well as Champions League play, but they also had get past three other powerful Mexican teams just to get to the final: Club Leon, Cruz Azul and Club America. And now they have to face what some say is the most expensively organized club team in Concacaf.”

One of the aspects of Champions League that has always worked against MLS teams is that the last rounds of the tournament normally take place before the start of the MLS season, when the teams and players are still in preseason mode and haven’t hit their stride. Clearly, you can’t blame the record of loss on that alone, but it certainly doesn’t help. 

This year, because of COVID, LAFC is playing in the final rounds right after the season has ended. That helps.

Why will I be happy if LAFC wins? Well, there are a couple of reasons. First, an MLS team beating a Liga MX team for the championship will surely raise the level of competitiveness between the two leagues. And with more and more talk of new tournaments and other ways for the two leagues to play each other, a stronger rivalry is simply better for the league. People love the spectacle of rivalry and that form of rivalry pulls MLS more and more into the global game.

So, yes, a part of me just thinks it will be good for the growth of the league and of the sport in general.

But, seriously, as futile as it is to hope for this, I believe having an MLS team win Champions League is one of those steps that is going to need to be taken to slowly quieten those soccer fans who not only dismiss MLS but act as if being a fan illustrates that you don’t know much about quality soccer.

Just this morning, I read a social media post by someone who was going to watch the game tonight, even though the “trash MLS” has a team in the final.

What a strange attitude, and one that I am constantly surprised to keep seeing articulated. The level of the play in the league rises every year, at least to my eyes, and the level of competition keeps the game interesting. Yet, there are some people who not only think MLS’s level is not only inadequate but they also feel as if it is very important that each of us knows they think this.

The record in Concacaf Champions League doesn’t help. 

If LAFC wins, will that make such fans take note? I doubt it. Not this year. They will have plenty of excuses to make for victory (imagine that: making excuses for victory). We’ll be told that it was an unusual season that threw everyone off. We’ll be told that the lack of rabid fans in Liga MX stadiums hurt those teams’ chances. We’ll be told it was a fluke. We’ll be told all sorts of things.

And some of those will be true. And I’ll put up with hearing the moaners even if LAFC wins, because I do think it’s just a step in altering that perception. But it’s a step that is going to have to be taken. It’s a hump an MLS team is going to have to get over sooner or later.

In the meantime, as the league continues to grow and improve, you and I will simply have to tolerate those who need to moan about the league for their own psychological benefit.

And if they lose: well, I’ll continue to love the league. And prepare myself for more cringey comments from others.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was written prior to the CONCACAF Champions League final, which Tigres won 2-1.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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