- Jason Davis

Let’s just re-establish just who needs convincing when Real Salt Lake hits the field against Monterrey in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Final (FSC & Telefutura, 10 PM ET) tonight at Rio Tinto Stadium:

1. American soccer fans who look down on MLS
2. European soccer fans who look down on MLS
3. American sports fans who look down on soccer, and by extension, MLS
4. Everyone else

The chances that all of those groups, particularly the last two, somehow have their minds changed by an RSL triumph tonight is up for question. Americans seems to have a disturbing propensity to hang on to faulty opinions no matter the evidence placed in front of them. And yes, that’s a reference to a non-soccer happening today. Excuse me.

Regardless of the number of minds actually changed by midnight Eastern tonight, there’s no doubting that some sort of undefinable “progress” will have been made in the never-ending battle for respect. It might be delayed until December, when RSL (knock on wood - I’m dangerously close to jinx territory here) heads off to Japan to potentially take on some club all soccer fans truly respect, but it will come nonetheless. It’s not something we can quantify, but then, few of the steps soccer in the US has taken in the last 20 years have been.

Tonight is massive for MLS, full stop. Determining the effects an RSL win would have on a larger scale is difficult. Tonight we cross our fingers, hope for the best from a team fully capable, and wait to assess the fallout when we wake up tomorrow. Time will tell if a continental title means a hill of beans in any of the relevant spheres.

One group of people that may have just come off of the list above, somewhat to my surprise, are MLS players themselves. See this from Kyle Beckerman over at RSL Soapbox:

“At first I wasn't too keen on playing in this, when we won the cup, I was thinking we got fly all over the place, I would rather play in Superliga, we can play at home, more bonus money, that sounds good to me, but after going through this, the experience that we got, we have grown more as a team and gotten better as a team. It has helped us in our MLS play, some of the things we had to do overseas; it is kinda cool that we are blazing a path for the rest of the league to follow. It has been great the level of support, everyone getting behind us and realizing how big this tournament is and we are just kinda the first to start it. I think from now on we will see MLS teams that go far into this tournament; it is only going to make the league better and more recognizable around the world.”

MLS fans, in part because games happen midweek and tickets haven’t been included in their season package, have been slow to come around to the importance of the Champions League. The clubs themselves, hampered by the stresses of travel and a knockout round that takes place in pre-season, haven’t always gone full bore at it either. But the players? To hear an American player of Beckerman’s stature - a 12-year veteran of the league who has witnessed first hand its evolution, no less - say that before this run he would have preferred to have played SuperLiga is somewhat astounding. No one, beyond the marketers involved and Mexican soccer fans who got to see their clubs come to town, respected SuperLiga.

Beckerman expressed a (former) attitude I can imagine many players holding, if only because this is mostly uncharted territory for so many of them. MLS has existed outside of the bounds of the international soccer fabric, at least in perception, for years. Beckerman saw the Champions League as an inconvenience initially because it meant going outside of this comfort zone. We’re all guilty of that on occasion, only to find that the thing we dreaded was actually worthwhile and pleasurable. That’s not a soccer lesson, it’s a life lesson.

Add another benefit to the RSL’s run to the doorstep of the title, then. The players, at least a few of them, needed some convincing too. If those with other clubs can live vicariously through Beckerman and his teammates (because, let’s face it - everyone is essentially working with the same set of tools), maybe they’ve come to appreciate the value of the Champions League on a new level as well. What was an abstract idea - an MLS club beating a Mexican club and taking the league’s banner to the Club World Cup - is suddenly concrete. Hell, even if they’re just jealous of all of the attention RSL is getting and just want some of it for themselves (this goes for team owners and administrators, also - everyone is behind #MLS4RSL, but they’re also incredibly competitive people), that will benefit the league.

In fact, this might be the biggest benefit of Real Salt Lake’s success. More than the fans or the media, MLS needs its players to want to win this competition if it is truly worth winning. Half-hearted efforts from players on clubs with relatively minuscule salary budgets and the disadvantages of an alternate seasonal schedule won’t get it done.

Numbers 1-4 in the above list won’t suddenly turn into MLS boosters overnight if Real Salt Lake wins (and they have a very good shot, though it’s obviously nothing close to a foregone conclusion). Convincing the masses is a long, slow, battle of attrition. RSL can give the good guys a boost, perhaps the biggest the league has ever seen, but it will still be still a small victory in the grand scale. Only time, a prolonged run of success in international competitions, and continued growth in quality can ultimately win the league the respect it wants from the bulk of America’s soccer fans.

If RSL’s success is enough to motivate more players like Beckerman, all across the league, to want to win the Champions League, that’s a unforeseen benefit that will immeasurably help in speeding up the process.

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