By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 15, 2012) US Soccer Players — Toronto ending the Los Angeles Galaxy's Champions League campaign at the quarterfinal stage probably didn't shock as many people as it should have. Regardless of how much League officials built up the importance of the Champions League, there's still a disconnect between MLS interest and interest in other competitions involving MLS teams.
The North American professional sports marketplace doesn't do well with tournaments on top of the regular league schedule. Well, that's not exactly true. The US portion of the North American pro sports marketplace doesn't do well.
Canada seems to have no trouble not only embracing, but treating tournaments like the Champions League as bigger than the regular league schedule. After all, that's the point of a Confederation championship tournament. Granted, they're the only country in CONCACAF that feels this way, at least demonstrated by attendance numbers.
Back at MLS level, Toronto's win opens up an older discussion. Toronto isn't a good team, this season or last. They've been hunting for a style of play since their expansion season that has yet to show up. Glimpses, sure. But those glimpses are normally met with the kind of tinkering that leaves them worse off.
The day after knocking the Galaxy out of the Champions League in the knockout stage, a lot will be temporarily forgiven. Whether or not it should be isn't exactly a fair question in light of the biggest accomplishment in Toronto FC history. This is a team that this time last year was having to explain a loss to the latest expansion team, a Canadian expansion team. Engaged fan base aside, there is no roll of honor for this club. Had they failed to get past the Galaxy, would anyone have been surprised?
Which brings us to the larger question. What does bad really mean in Major League Soccer? After all, good or bad is the easiest way to group teams in any league. In the broadest scope, good means success and bad means failure, but that doesn't really work for professional sports. There have been times in almost every pro sports league where teams that are horrid to watch have won enough to be in the good category. Some even became champions playing with a style that was a turnoff everywhere but the home market. That happens, and we've seen it in MLS.
There's also the reverse, teams with bad records that have tried and failed to establish a style of play that was more entertaining than the status quo. Some might flatter Toronto by putting them in this category, but their ever changing styles move the target to the point that it's an empty compliment. That's part of the difficulty in figuring out what bad really means in this League.
It's certainly not the Los Angeles Galaxy in the broad scope of things. They're defending champions, the favorites from among the MLS teams that made the knockout round of the Champions League to advance to the final. Yet over three games that counted to start their 2012 schedule, they haven't been very good. See how that works? Respect for what they've accomplished leaves them out of the bad category. At least for now, they get the benefit of the doubt. The same is not true for Toronto. Right now, they're a bad team that's overachieving.
Does that put them in a completely different category than Seattle, a club that blew a game one lead and got demolished in the second-half against Santos Laguna? Yes, it does. Seattle is a proven winner, capable of competing for Conference titles and winning big games on a regular basis. Becoming the latest team to show that MLS still can't compete on a regular basis in Mexico doesn't move them out of the good category. Toronto beating LA doesn't move them out of the bad.
So what does? Most would point to results on the field. Lose enough, and nothing is going to keep a team from being thought of as bad. Maybe, but there are those that will argue that MLS doesn't reward creative play. The physicality of the League eventually pulls teams towards a norm that focuses on the basics rather than the flair. There's a third category of teams that fall around the median. They're neither good nor bad, but can still make the playoffs, pull of a shock result or two, and never have to admit that they're part of the problem.
Toronto isn't one of the clubs being dragged down by a schedule full of grind out games against median teams. They're a team trying to get into that median category. To be average in MLS means just that. It's avoiding the long losing streaks that seem to plague certain teams every season. It's really being in playoff contention late, rather than being mathematically still alive along with almost every team in the League.
Wednesday night in Carson didn't change that, and it might not even have shown us a Toronto in theory. Those games, especially the first leg, weren't evidence of a new style that will push Toronto into contention in the Eastern Conference this season. That is what's needed. Evidence that Toronto has changed for the better. Right now, it really is just one surprising win in March.
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