By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 8, 2015) US Soccer Players – The Montreal Impact entered the semifinal round of the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League as the only MLS team in position to win it. Now, they have the chance to pull off an improbable run to a trophy and – at least as importantly – advance to the 2015 FIFA Club World Cup.
What MLS makes of their newfound heroes is a different question. For all the enthusiasm surrounding expansion, the league of choice, and the future of MLS, right now it’s a league still in search of proof. That happens on the field, and a last-place team from 2014 is now in position to make a case for an entire league.
Then again, only if you feel like stressing the importance of the CONCACAF Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup. In the event of Montreal winning the thing, MLS has no choice but to do just that. Even when it’s nowhere near the best scenario for the league, they’re stuck with events on the field.
MLS in need of a champion is nothing new. Their best efforts at Champions League level have fallen short of the Liga MX challenge. That was already starting to change before Montreal’s run, but there’s still the impression – if not the feeling – that the Champions League is an obligation in Mexico. Their clubs don’t treat it with the respect CONCACAF believed it would innately deserve simply by creating it. Liga MX wants more, even if it means having to send third and fourth choice teams to South America’s Copa Libertadores in hopes of getting it.
Fair play to them, they see CONCACAF and it’s Champions League for what it really is. A tournament without a foundation begs for respect, and CONCACAF never took that crucial step. Simply existing isn’t enough of a reason, nor is entry into another “we built it so they’re obligated to come” competition.
The FIFA Club World Cup holds no weight in international soccer circles in the areas most likely to advance the winning team. The cool kids only go because their parents made them, not because they want to be there. Individual teams and coaches can do the polite thing and stress the importance of what they’ve just won in the moment, but even the worldwide public isn’t swayed that easily.
Paying attention to the Club World Cup at the very least requires your club’s involvement. The same is normally true of the CONCACAF Champions League, though Montreal might change that this season.
Regardless of the opinions of recent expansion markets, MLS is still a league over club organization by design. What’s good for the league is paramount, something older fans had no choice but to accept as MLS struggled for survival in the early 2000s. An MLS team winning any trophy is good for the league, even if it comes with so many caveats.
MLS has to be careful here, restraining their own normal rush to optimistic exuberance. Montreal doesn’t tell the MLS story. They’re an organization underperforming at MLS level, taking a route into the Champions League that has nothing to do with MLS performance. They did it while openly questioning the commitment of their own hometown. Even their history in the Champions League was prior to their MLS involvement.
Latching onto this might be a problem. MLS can offer congratulations, but there’s limits for how much they can do with Montreal. Playing up Montreal as a ‘worst in one league to first in another’ means downplaying what the teams that qualified directly from MLS couldn’t do. It’s a dicey scenario building up your worst team while downplaying your first team since so few are likely to nod along.
Turning Montreal into the latest example of the successful MLS model requires overlooking the Impact’s own public commentary. There’s not a least likelier team in MLS for a lot of reasons.
So the question becomes whether or not MLS can stay out of its own way when one of its clubs could potentially win the Champions League. Can they allow this to be a Montreal moment rather than an MLS moment? The odds are they won’t be able to resist the urge. This is as much about the league itself as it is about any member team by design. MLS’s pseudo single-entity and their insistence on league over club won’t be able to stay out of the way.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.
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