- Jason Davis

Within the American soccer bubble, the CONCACAF Champions League is a pretty big deal. Or rather, the idea that an MLS team needs to win the title in said league is a pretty big deal. Don Garber talks about it constantly. American soccer fans, no matter which MLS team they support, bemoan the league's lack of success. Columnists, writers, blogger, et. al. regularly put down the league using its failure in the Champions League as a means to that end. Soccer people care.

Other people don't - within "other people" I include casual soccer fans (yes, they exist) and general sports fans who don't actively pursue soccer but accept it as part of their mishmash sports consumption lifestyle (these are the people that absorb SportsCenter like a sponge, but don't generally search out news and opinion on any particular sport). While we all work ourselves up to the Champions League Crew-RSL showdown tonight, Steve Davis decided to dish out a rather heavy-handed smack down of the idea that the CCL means anything. It doesn't, he says, in part because it won't affect things like ticket sales or TV contracts.

The point, I guess, is that we inside the bubble can't will the Champions League (North American version) into mattering just because we desperately want it to. The narrow band of people who care are powerless to give the tournament any more weight than its history and prestige allow. Unfortunately, there's not much history, and there's scant prestige. Not only have Mexican clubs dominated, their best clubs have the much, much, bigger Copa Libertadores to aim for. That fact alone sucks out most of the prestige. That CONCACAF has been an incomplete (prior to MLS) or poorly run confederation for years and decades means there is no real history. That sense of importance that time conveys can't be wished into existence.

No one cares but soccer geeks in Utah and Ohio and bloggers like me. One of the MLS participants winning the title won't magically turn the league "legitimate" or suddenly convince the rest of the soccer world that MLS is a big-time competition. An appearance at the Club World Cup during the American off-season wouldn't be much more than a curiosity.

Still, I'm not sure we shouldn't treat the Champions League as ultra-important even if it's really not (yet).

Only time, and a lot of it, can give the Champions League resonance beyond the bubble. That means we either sit on our hands (and I include MLS itself here) waiting for the day to come when the CCL actually matters, or we do our best to instill it with whatever artificial importance we can manage. I suspect for most of us, it's about clearing a hurdle rather than achieving something momentous. We give this tournament weight disproportionate with its status in the general sports realm because an MLS side winning represents the next logical step in the ascendancy of the league. That this attitude manifests itself in our treating the low-rent CCL like it's the other Champions League is somewhat unavoidable.

Acting like it matters might be the only way to speed up the process of it becoming relevant. Even if that won't work, treating the tournament in accordance with its perceived importance is tantamount to defeatism. If clubs are in it, they should aspire to win it. If winning brings rewards (the title of continental champion, an appearance in the Club World Cup, which, while lacking prestige itself, still involves the best of Europe and South America), then it has inherent value. The possibility of doing something no other American club has done, and then going on to play a club like Barcelona in what is nominally a meaningful tournament, gives certain people starry eyes.

Clubs judge themselves against available yardsticks. The CONCACAF Champions League is the one international yardstick available to MLS. Downplaying its importance would be an odd thing to do. Considering recent history, minimizing the tournament sounds like an excuse for poor MLS performance.

This is where things get sticky. If we step outside of the bubble and recognize how little this Champions League means to everyone but a passionate few (and MLS itself), then step back in and frame it as a crucial and potentially transforming thing for an American or Canadian club to win, are we delusional, intentionally deceiving ourselves, lying, or worse?

I honestly don't know, but I'm not sure I see anything wrong with overselling the Champions League's importance. It's still a funny little tournament played in front of sparse crowds that may or may not help an MLS club or the league itself rise to the "next level." Unfortunately, however, it's the only means available for making an international splash of any measure. I know Davis isn't arguing that Real Salt Lake or Columbus shouldn't be trying to win the competition, just that it seems the parties involved are giving the CCL more credit than it actually deserves.

That's a truth, but it's a complicated one.

I'll close with an analogy. Major League Soccer is trying to get from Point A (minor, inconsequential league inhabiting a corner of the American sports landscape) to Point B (massive, important competition that draws big time players, big time attention, and big time dollars). Currently, it's on foot, walking slowly from Point A in the general direction of Point B. Over the course of the last sixteen years it has made steady, if excruciatingly slow, progress.

Off the side of the road a ways is a vehicle we'll call the "CONCACAF Champions League Express." It's not in good shape. It's not even clear it if runs. Nevertheless, should it run, even for a short time and covering only a small fraction of the total distance to the final destination at Point B, it could speed up the trip in a very meaningful way. The questions then, are how much energy MLS should devote to getting to that vehicle and how much hope there should be that it will go anywhere at all.

I don't know that there are clear answers to either.

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