The Champions League Imperative

Wednesday, April 20, 2011 | View Comments
- Jason Davis

Tonight. Fox Soccer Channel. 10 PM ET. Real Salt Lake hoists the hopes and dreams of American soccer—including Major League Soccer, its players, coaches, fans, assorted auxiliary staff and myriad hangers-on, not to mention every kid playing in every town on every field across this great land—onto their collective shoulders as they face off against Mexican stalwart Monterrey at the Estadio Tecnologico in a game that is not just a game, but is also a referendum on the growth, improvement, and worth of the American game, how it is played, run, taught and supported, and whether steps taken by the league in recent years to push quality to a higher level has worked or was just an exercise in slapping a more gregarious shade of lipstick on a healthy, but uncoordinated, beast of the swinish genus.

The above might be a slight exaggeration, but it's beginning to feel that way.

There's no doubt that RSL is currently the best MLS has to offer. It's a wonderful thing then that it's them down in Mexico flying the flag for the league, and to a lesser extent, the American game. Most of us truly believe they have a chance to "make history." If you buy that it's important for MLS to break through and win this particular competition, either because it provides entry into the Club World Cup or just because doing so gives the league more credibility, you couldn't ask for a better representative. RSL just getting this far is reason to puff out our chests a bit.

If you're an MLS booster, that is. If you're the type to use the #MLS4RSL hashtag, slap the corresponding Twibbon on your Twitter avatar and see the video messages from players around the league as a cool nod to solidarity, whether you're a fan of RSL or not. If the very idea of rooting on a team that's not your own doesn't make you want to retch. If you appreciate MLS as a league that needs all the success it can get in international competition to further legitimize itself in a country full of soccer snobs ever-ready to tear it down.

But let's be clear: no one is under any obligation to root for RSL. It's even okay to root against them, if your passion for your own club runs that deep (so deep you can't stomach pulling for a league rival) or your distaste for Real Salt Lake is that substantial (like, say, if you really, really hate their name). At some point, MLS will mature beyond the all-for-one mentality and start acting like a big boy soccer league. RSL represents MLS, and therefore has the backing of so many, because the league hasn't yet established itself as an equal to the Mexican Primera. #MLS4RSL is rah-rah solidarity, but it's also the manifestation of an inferiority complex.

Though it's hard to argue that MLS isn't inferior to the Mexican league, prompting the question of whether it is in fact a complex at all. It's understandable that fans from disparate teams—none of whom have developed enough hatred for RSL for it to be an impediment to rooting for them—are marshaling behind the first MLS team to make the Champions League final since the switch to this format, because MLS has yet to check this accomplishment off its to-do list. Everyone is green. The league's trier, underdog status lends itself to a communal feeling impossible almost everywhere else. There's hasn't been enough history to build up the enmity needed for non-RSL sympathizers to hope the American side falls flat against whomever they happen to be playing.

The US-Mexico rivalry muddies the emotional waters. The record of MLS teams in Mexico makes it easier to get on board the bandwagon of any team travelling there. Most of us just want that first domino to fall and for the duck to be broken. It's another on the list of "things that might make MLS less easily dismissed" that everyone would like to see accomplished. With the first one out of the way, and MLS taking a very real step in the direction of equality with the Primera, perhaps the floodgates will open. Next thing you know, MLS will be dominating. Until then, we feel the need to the do American soccer equivalent of Hands Across America.

MLS is missing the mutual dislike, outside of the most ardent supporters, that gives sports an intoxicating edge. Any league where something like #MLS4RSL seems natural clearly has a way to go before the temporary supports can be removed and the construct can stand on its own. MLS retains—and RSL's banner-carrying status reinforces this—the feeling of a missionary organization meant to spread the word of soccer throughout a heathen land rather than that of a collection of independent clubs each with their own culture and character. Time, and doses of outside success to better ameliorate the inferiority complex bit by bit, are the only things that can change that.

Which is why we should root for RSl to win this final series and get that monkey off the league's back. Not because it will bring glory to MLS necessarily, or because we should have any particular affinity for RSL, but because it will speed American soccer's maturation.

One day there won't be a need for #MLS4RSL. It won't even occur to anyone, much less those at the league's offices, to start such a campaign. It won't fit, won't feel right for anyone involved. The community will have changed. Loyalty from our teams won't extend to the league.

Less camaraderie. But less inferiority, too.

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