Much has been written in recent days about how Montreal’s run to the Champions League final signifies the ongoing rise of the MLS and it’s march towards equality with the Liga MX. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As any good political pollster will tell you, trends matter, individual polls don’t. While a freak poll showing an unusually big lead or sharp slump for one party might make a good news story, they bear little resemblance to the reality on the ground. The prevailing trend in CONCACAF is this: since the turn of the millennium, when LA Galaxy beat the Honduran side Olimpia, we’ve had 22 Mexican finalists, four Costa Rican finalists, and two US/Canadian finalists. Since the rebrand in 2008, six losing semi-finalists have been Mexican, four have been Costa Rican, and three have been from the MLS.
Although Montreal’s run to the final is commendable, the MLS is still a long way to go before it can even be mentioned in the same breath as the Liga MX. A couple of famous veterans getting one last big pay-check doesn’t change that. The squads have no depth and the academy system is years behind Mexico’s. The fact a player from the English third tier can be the top scorer (Bradley Wright Phillips) speaks volumes.
Understandably, the MLS is trying to become a major global league. Unfortunately, the structure of the league is highly off-putting to European and Latin America soccer fans. The enforced parity, the single entity, the lack of promotion/relegation, and the salary cap – it’s so far removed from what makes most football fans passionate about the game that it’s become the league people love to hate. UK viewing figures – one of the MLS’s key international markets – are slumping hard after a decent opening weekend. While leagues such as Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico have a fabled mystique around them in Europe, the MLS is derided.
A cursory glance through articles and fan forums shows that a lot of onlookers think that a win for Montreal – and a subsequent berth in the Club World Cup – would be another step towards the MLS becoming a serious player in the global football world. Maybe that’s true – but these are the same people that until this season thought the CONCACAF Champions League wasn’t worth their time as it was a minor competition. Obviously, this had nothing to do with the lack of American success in it – an MLS title against other centrally-owned teams is much more prestigious than being the best side in the continent.
A potential Montreal victory is being trumpeted in the US as a triumph in the face of adversity for the MLS. If adversity is having the league rearrange all your domestic games and trying your hardest to bring another goalkeeper just for the game after your (albeit excellent) first choice picked up a stupid booking, then they’ve really battled through some tough times.
Club America might not be the most popular side in Mexico, but they are the ones who deserve real praise. They are the ones on the verge of triumphing in the face of adversity. Injuries have piled up, they had a legitimate goal disallowed in the first leg (something that’s been swept under the carpet in the US media), and had to play their biggest domestic game of the year against Chivas in Guadalajara late on Sunday night. This will be America’s seventh game in April, whereas Montreal have only played three times all month.
America deserve to win, and probably will.