By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 8, 2016) US Soccer Players - The 2016 MLS season kicked off with a packed slate of games and a flood of goals on Sunday. The games grabbed even casual fans' attention with an enjoyable barrage of open, if ragged, play and dramatic moments from coast to coast.
Though the television ratings numbers usually arrive with a buzz-killing thud a few days later, it's hard to conceive of a much more auspicious way to begin the league's 21st campaign. It’s certainly tempting to let Sunday’s games wash out the sour taste of MLS's grim failure to advance a single team into the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals last week. DC, LA, Salt Lake, and Seattle all crashed out at the hands of Mexican opposition.
Tempting, but impossible.
That's because it was all too easy to draw a straight line from the endearing flaws shown over the weekend to the gaffes and shortcomings of the CCL knockout rounds. Perhaps more dangerously, both occasions hinted at a reflexive attitude of surly avoidance when it comes to objective comparison between this country's game and counterparts abroad.
“Welp. Preseason is officially over! Let's get it started, MLS,” chuckled DC United's Twitter account after that club's aggregate loss to Queretaro, a deeply average Liga MX club which hardly had to exert itself to knock off D.C. The clear implication: The “real games” of league play, the ones that truly matter, were still to come.
The LA Galaxy's account was even more laconic, simply posting “¯\_(ツ)_/¯” as Santos Laguna hammered the five-time MLS Cup champions 4-0 in Torreon to advance by the same aggregate score.
Both posts drew a barrage of angry criticism from fans enraged by the seeming flippancy of their clubs at a moment of acute underachievement. Perhaps forgivable as ill-timed social media plays, they’re also the latest in a long history of petulant reactions to losing at the international level. It’s a sensation that Americans aren't accustomed to in most other facets of life. Yet, they’ve had to swallow this sort of thing repeatedly in soccer terms.
Others are quick to note the built-in disadvantage created by the disparity between the MLS and Liga MX calendars, a valid point but a limited one, given that almost any alternative schedule would hatch new problems – and new excuses. It took a wise old head to put the 0-for-4 CCL drubbing in proper context.
“I still think what our league has to have is quality. We’ve got to get to a point where we have clubs of quality,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said in a conversation with the Washington Post's Steve Goff. “I mean consistently strong, more competitive in outside tournaments. The rest of the leagues around the world aren’t standing still. We’re not going to be smarter and wiser about using our money than anyone else. The playing field has to be close to level in order to compete.”
If only others in positions of power would be so frank and self-aware in public. It seems blatantly obvious that a CCL trophy capture – or at the bare minimum, more competitiveness than was shown this year – is a basic step along the path to MLS's oft-stated goal of a place in the world elite by 2022. Champions League play is an uncomfortably objective measurement of quality. It’s a “yes or no” question that so far been answered with resounding negatives, year after year.
It's far easier and more self-serving to point to more vague metrics like star power, crowd size, or certain measures of economic and demographic growth. That's an old tactic by MLS leaders, and one that has understandable roots in the painful early slog towards survival in its early years.
Faced with a daunting competitive landscape both at home and abroad at the time of the league's birth, MLS's architects sensibly drew behind an Oz-like curtain. There, they set about crafting an artful illusion of heft and permanence to inflate the modest resources at their disposal. A hermetically-sealed competition model, wonkish jargon like allocation, discovery, Designated Players, re-entry drafts, TAM, etc all descend from that necessity to do more with less, and obscure the plate-spinning and torch-juggling that was going on behind the scenes. Here Arena's line about MLS trying to be “smarter and wiser” with its resources hits home.
It's now calcified into something of a cultural outlook. While it's surely played a role in the admirable fight to reach the current promising – but incomplete – stage, it seems to be reaching its limits. Commissioner Don Garber and his colleagues at MLS headquarters have yet to engineer a way to incentivize international success. Either that, or they’re simply not as concerned with it as their wider ambitions would seem to suggest.
In their defense, Champions League remains murky and unimportant to all but the most devoted fans of MLS clubs. However, isn’t it that segment that probably deserves to see a few of their priorities elevated at this point? Ask Jurgen Klinsmann and the US National Team. There's simply no other metric like legit international competition.
This isn't just Major League Soccer's problem. This is an American soccer problem.
We were so pitifully far behind the global curve for so long that finding asterisks and caveats was an understandably human response to the realities of second-class citizenship in world soccer. Now that the gap has shrunk, the pain of runner-up status is even more acute. Much easier, then, to retreat into the bubble of domestic bliss. Sunday reminded us how enjoyable that can be.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world is still out there, starting with Mexico. We can stave off the sobering facts, but they remain. We'll encounter them at least once every four years, after all, when the World Cup shows us where we're really at.
More from Charles Boehm: