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Just a short time ago, the United States was awash in the sports ecstasy that is the World Cup. Bars were packed with reveling masses draped in red, white, & blue; drunken strangers-turned-best friends hugging and celebrating The Beautiful Game as if their team was in the Super Bowl.
Now, only a few months removed from the tournament, many Americans' interest in soccer has plummeted back down to Darryl Jenks from Coming To America-levels. What happened to the thrill? Was it real? Was America's World Cup excitement a product of actual soccer enthusiasm or simply what happens when footy gets enveloped in a blanket of good old 'Merican patriotism?
Yes, the sport is growing in America. MLS revenues and attendance are up, jersey sales are up, and general appreciation and understanding of the sport in the States is at an all-time high. But at what point do we stop being "a nation on the brink of soccer fanaticism" and become a nation of soccer fanatics? At what point do we stop building and start competing? How do we get there?
Let's start by pointing out the obvious: Americans didn't become fans of basketball, football, baseball, or hockey because of our international teams. As much as the 1980 Miracle On Ice inspired the nation, it isn't the reason Americans follow hockey today. Same goes for The Dream Team in 1992. These were inspiring squads with memorable Olympic runs, but they're not the reason our country still follows those sports in 2014.
Club teams are how nations build a sustainable sports culture. They're how the international community went from losing to USA Basketball by an average of 44 points in 1992 to getting within 7 points of the gold medal against Hall of Fame NBA talent in 2012. Spain's basketball team didn't become dangerously competitive by playing "pretty good" once every four years. They built leagues, infrastructure, and excitement around the burgeoning sport and, in turn, their national talent level went through the roof.
This is not to say that MLS isn't trying to make this jump, but compared to the English Premier League, German Bundesliga, or La Liga in Spain, Major League Soccer is still a step behind. And even as more American players go against the will of their national team's coach by staying put to help the league (and also make more money / gain regional recognition), the across-the-board stateside support needed to make a Spanish basketball-like leap is still missing.
This is what makes club team competition like the CONCACAF Champions League so important. CONCACAF, the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, holds an annual Champions League tournament featuring all of the best club teams in the region. You may already be familiar with the UEFA Champions League that features all of Europe's best club teams. This is our version.
Which is not to insinuate that the CONCACAF CL is at all directly comparable to the UEFA Champions League. The UEFA Champions League is one of the biggest sporting events on the planet with broad international appeal, (super) star power, and billions of dollars of revenue. CONCACAF Champions League, on the other hand, is a relatively unpopular competition where teams with few stars play in front of thousands of empty seats. At the moment CONCACAF CL even lags behind the Europa League, UEFA's far less prestigious club tournament.
Yet even with the lower talent levels and the lack of the visibility, profitability, and marketability that makes other Champions Leagues so appealing, there's something important to note about the event:
A United States team has never won.
Since the CONCACAF Champions Cup turned into the CONCACAF Champions League in 2008, no U.S. team has walked away as champion. Even if we go back as far as 1962, only two U.S. clubs (the L.A. Galaxy in 2000 & D.C. United in 1998) have claimed victory, making the United States the EIGHTH most successful country in its history. Costa Rica—whose national team surpassed all World Cup expectations this summer by only losing in the quarterfinals to the Dutch in PKs—has six victories and five runner-ups. Mexico has a whopping 30 winners and 15 runner-ups. The U.S., since the inception of the Champions League, still has zero.
Before the United States can claim any sort of international soccer legitimacy, it first has to learn to beat its neighbors to the south.
Sure there are plenty of awards MLS teams can win to validate their success, such as the regular season Supporter's Shield, the U.S. Open Cup (with an automatic birth into CONCACAF Champions League), and the MLS Cup, but none offer a chance to impress on an international stage and play high-level foreign competition like CONCACAF does.
The current MLS champion, Sporting KC, has built a small but strong American soccer capital in Kansas City so quickly that it's getting attention from the best American football conference in the country, but even the league champions playing in the United States' "soccer capital" understand the importance of international club play. Just like Andrew Wiebe eluded to in an article on mlssoccer.com, America must compete on an international level to truly grow. Sporting KC's MLS awards are nice, but they mean little to Mexican clubs who've defeated their American counterparts on their way to multiple Champions League titles.
Of course, CONCACAF Champions League matches aren't all learning experiences and orange slices, there are some drawbacks to MLS teams competing in CCL. Peter Vermes, current Head Coach of Sporting KC and a former member of the U.S. National Team who participated in the 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup, spoke to us following his team's 1-1 draw against Real Esteli FC of Nicaragua.
"Oh, for sure [there are disadvantages]," Vermes says. "The travel and all those things–it absolutely affects what you are trying to do as a team. It can be at times very challenging for the players. And then to get back and try to put a roster together that's going to be able to meet the demands of both. There's no doubt there can be [disadvantages]."
"But again, that comes with evolution."
Coach Vermes uses the word "evolution" often when discussing MLS, as someone who is both very aware of the stark differences between MLS and high-level European leagues and as someone who has watched the American game increasingly gain legitimacy over the past two decades. Yes, there are drawbacks. Yes, there are major issues with uniformity in regards to fields, crowds, attention, and officiating in CONCACAF Champions League when compared to UEFA Champions League or even MLS. But Peter Vermes also sees the bigger picture and understands this tournament's importance as a piece to the larger "American soccer" puzzle.
"You don't find success because of one thing," Vermes explains. "You find success because of doing many things well."
The Sporting KC coach isn't alone in that sentiment. Lloyd Sam, a Leeds-born 29 year-old Englishman who has already notched two big goals for the New York Red Bulls in their last two CONCACAF Champions League matchups, agrees with Vermes' multi-faceted approach to stateside soccer expansion. "The Champions League out here is definitely something we wanna be in and we wanna do well in, but I don't know if that's going to help grow the sport [in America]. It's also going to take time and investments from the people at the top."
As a European playing in America, Sam has seen first-hand the clear-cut disparity between the rabid patriotism of the World Cup and what makes up the remaining 47 months of the four-year soccer cycle.
"In the World Cup everybody wants to talk to me about the game all of a sudden," Sam says. "It's like all these fans coming out of the woodwork that I've never seen talk about the game, and they crawl right back into their hole after. I've actually said it to a few people, 'You're in New York. Support your local team.' And they only want to support their country in the World Cup."
"I will say this: The further you get in the [CONCACAF Champions League], the more people realize that you can win and that will probably help [American soccer] grow."
And growth as a soccer nation is the goal. Not fleeting World Cup success, but sustained fútbol excellence within our borders. What may seem like a pipe dream is definitely attainable with a concerted focus on building the right way. Soccer in America can't just pray concussion fears push parents to force their kids into soccer camps instead of letting them playing football, it takes long-term vision. And one of the first steps of turning that vision into a reality is a renewed emphasis on building the club culture in America and showcasing those clubs on an international level. Making it past the World Cup group stage was nice, but U.S. Soccer had done that before. An MLS team winning the CONCACAF Champions League may not be the magic bullet, but it would be a sign that American soccer is genuinely on the rise.
CONCACAF Champions League action continues tonight with Waterhouse FC vs. DC United at 8 p.m. on Fox Soccer Plus, and the Portland Timbers vs. Olimpia at 10 p.m. on Fox Sports 1.